Tics and Tells

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Tics and Tells                       

 

 Prop Wash Chronicle   Outside Magazine

 

I woke up a stranger in my own land. Born Yank, but not blooded. I’d only taken in one shining sea and a couple of purple majesties. No tasseled amber fields.   California and the southwest. Otherwise, no visual. Didn't need an analysis, but I wanted to see the rest of the picture.

 

I’d done the usual rote traveling: the trip to France, rail chit in hand, followed by the optional truck ride across North Africa, from which I returned thinking, “Thank God that’s over,” like a sorority girl ticking off experiences.

 

If I aimed to bag America, I wouldn’t repeat the stance of a younger day, the bearded recent college grad, careering along the Interstate in his Volks, looking forward to a hot shower at the KOA. No hitchhiking either. I couldn’t see myself among the glassy-eyed malarial slouches at the freeway on-ramps, holding cardboard signs with “East” scrawled in Crayola. And no Dog. I always wind up on the plague ship sitting next to some urine soaked carrion with a wet cough. In a word, I hate the bus, don’t care much for cars, refuse to thumb...

 

That’s why I swapped my beater Volkswagen (R/H, snrf, runs gd) for 35 hours of flying lessons. Not to say I’d ever taken an interest in flying. I’d never been the rapt air cadet looking up at the sound of an aircraft engine. “Wow, Beachcraft Bonanza.” But in my own plane I could fly above America. I could see everything but wouldn’t actually have to brush shoulders with every pater showing his brats the motels.

 

The plane I finally bought was a 13-year-old two-place Cessna trainer. It weighed 900 pounds and had a 100-hp engine that looked pretty much like the one in my Volkswagen. The radio didn’t work, and the instruments had their own eccentricities. A real pilot might have known better, but for this bargain I paid $3,000.

 

Owning an aircraft meant I could no longer afford a roof. I was getting $300 a month in unemployment, but the plane payment took $200. I had a friend, however, who was working out his own quirky impulses by living in a barn outside the remote mountain town of Igo, pop. 50, in Northern California. Conditions primitive, no running water or plumbing, but I was welcome. There wasn’t actually room for me in the barn, but I could set up my Army cot under the big fig in the orchard.

 

Warm springtime weather, why not. I was soon living under a tree. For money John cut firewood, and I had the tail end of my unemployment, co-mingled to make the Milton Friedman Sinking Beer Fund, with enough left for av gas to check out the little strips dotting Northern California: Trinity Center, Manton, Shingletown, here and there.

 

Thus began my sojourn as an airplane bum, the beginning of two years of bushing. Bushing: flying strictly in the boondocks, off the airways, from pea patch to sod field. The radio gathers dust. All navigation done by trying to match something on the sectional map with a feature on the ground. The best bushing is through the western states and Canada to Alaska, something I found out when I quit the soft life at the barn to cash in on the North Slope oil boom.

 

My ideas were vague, but I did know that the Alyeska consortium was building a pipeline from Prudhoe Bay, and it seemed to me that with all that oil, and all that money, some opportunity would present. Besides, I’d heard that Fairbanks had become especially decadent. The notion of a roaring, drunken, violent frontier boomtown engaged my puerile imagination.

 

I had planned to make the trip alone, but before I left the barn I got into a wrestling match with John’s three boys and in the scuffle pinched a nerve in my neck. Cissy, a friend of John’s wife, drove me to the hospital. Naturally, I told her about my plan, what an adventure, blah, blah, and pretty soon, she decided that she wanted to go even though she already had a husband. Until then I think she thought of me as “the hippie under John’s tree,” but this business of an airplane ride to Alaska must have colored me in more interesting hues. To make it short, she decided to take a sabbatical from the hearth.

 

At the library I got an FAA pamphlet that said Canadian law required pilots to carry survival gear: fishing hooks, monofilament line... snare wire, if you can believe. While I was okay at spotlighting deer at 30 yards from the back of a truck, I had no illusions about my skill as Bumpo. For my survival kit, I took along a dime-store compass, two mosquito nets, and a seven-pound jar of peanut butter.

 

Cissy and I flew north, entering Canada at Penticton. Then we went winging through innumerable mountain passes to the Peace River and to Northway, Alaska. Accommodations were not a problem. There are hundreds of little boondocks airports, each one having an airport manager who is generally glad to see you. Sure, pitch your tent right on the field. And the john never had a coin lock. Oftentimes, a shower. Which is better than trying to take a splash in the rest room at Jack-in-the-Box.

 

We took advantage of such hospitality. Some Forest Service types let us stay in a trailer one night in Oregon when it rained small pets. We slept in airport offices, in hangars. Somewhere in British Columbia a guy let us stay at his fishing lodge overlooking a lake. I remember the walls were plastered with snapshots of boring-looking people holding fish.

 

The right altitude for a long cross-country turned out to be about 800 feet above terrain. There’s a feeling of mastery at that height. If I ascended to 5,000, the world become uninhabited, lifeless, strictly landscape. At 800 feet I could see everything. If erotic looking is called scoptophilia, then that was it. I was a spy, a voyeur. I flew over towns, looking into people’s backyards, watching them poolside or by the barbecue. And they were oblivious, because pedestrians never realize how much the low-flying pilot can see. That’s why jails are full of housebreakers and car thieves pondering the efficacy of police aerial surveillance. It’s like looking through the crack of a door into a crowded room; they can’t see you, your view is perfect. I could see the movie theater with the line in front, and the kids trying to sneak in the side door. I could see the main streets and the back alleys, the car lots, baseball diamonds, the teen hangout, the graveyards, junkyards, all at a glance. It was like that exquisite flash of understanding at midnight.

 

Flying over wilderness is different. In Alaska or Canada. By flying off the roads, it’s possible to remove yourself from all signs of human life very rapidly. There is nothing out there, not a house, not a telephone pole. And something strange happens when there is no man-made object to put vastness in perspective. If seeing a town whole is the midnight flash of understanding, then seeing unmitigated wilderness is the confusion of dawn, when one struggles to remember what had seemed so brilliant the night before.

 

We arrived in Anchorage without two pennies to rub together, and the work situation turned out to be this: At the first smell of oil, all the regular Alaskans dumped their shit jobs and headed for the slope, and the first wave of carpetbaggers took whatever the Alaskans left behind, leaving unskilled latecomers like me to scramble for whatever menial work was left. At the unemployment office the best I could do was to get us on as “lodge couple” at Bear Mountain Lodge. The man had to tend bar, pump gas, and maintain a diesel generator. The woman had to wait tables and clean cabins. Not ideal for a couple of our refinement, but the lodge had an airstrip in the backyard.

 

Two hours later we bumped down at Bear Mountain the met the proprietress, a decrepit stick of a woman who looked exactly like Gravel Gertie (Her B.O. Plenty, it turned out, was in the hospital sweating a case of the D.T.s). In another hour I’d embarked on the first of my new duties, the burning of 200 pounds of accumulated garbage.

 

The lodge nestled beneath the Wrangell Mountains on the road to Slana. I looked at the copper-colored peaks rising in all directions and began to mouth the words “awesome grandeur.” Ansel Adams at his most clinical, a Sierra Club calendar. Plus, a living river of ice, the Nebsesna Glacier, spilled out of the canyon across the road. But such is the perversity of things that right at the base of all this beauty lived Gravel Gertie, a speck of humanity at its most peevish. Gertie was so miserly that she wouldn’t give me one of her cookies until she made sure none of her small group of lodgers would buy it; and when I asked for milk I got a tablespoon of powdered chalk in a water glass.

 

One night about 3 a.m. she came flying out to the Airstream trailer where Cissy and I stayed. “I’m being robbed,” she cried. “Stop them.” Sure enough, a couple of young mopes were hammering at the lock on the gas pump. “No free glass with that fill-up,” I thought.

 

It’s wrong to think that everybody in Alaska is a wilderness buff, tromping around on snowshoes in pursuit of moose. These two punks at the gas pump -- like most Alaskans in fact -- had the atrophied leg muscles of the typical energy-dependent urbanite. The punks were tied to their car, and the road, and their idea of living off the land was knocking over a gas station.

 

I said: “Either you guys leave right now or I’m going to shoot you both.” The amusing thing is that I didn’t have a gun, and they could see I didn’t have a gun. Yet, just because I said it, just because I looked serious when I said it, they thought that somehow it might be true. Amazing. And they left. It’s the same principle that sells used cars.

 

On our day off we decided to fly over to Valdez, the southern terminus of the pipeline, to try to better our lot. Valdez, I thought, might be a good place to cash in on whatever was going on. No sooner had we got through the pass than the weather closed down and we couldn’t go back. It was raining; we didn’t have our tent or sleeping bag. Happily, a geologist we knew from the lodge picked us up. He and his wife were avid mushroom hunters, which was fun enough, jouncing around on old mining roads looking for buttons. But they were Seventh Day Adventists, and their board suffered accordingly.

 

As for looks, Valdez is not bad, perched on a gem of an inlet and surrounded by cliffs so sheer and lushly verdant that a comparison with Maui has become trite. Otherwise, it’s not much, and as for rowdy nightlife, you might as well be in Normal, Oklahoma. Anyway, by the time we got back to Bear Mountain, we’d been sacked. Gertie paid us off. Our combined check for the week came to $87.

 

We flew to Anchorage and, hearing about a job with a chain saw operation, I promoted myself as an experienced sawyer. My experience was based pretty much on seeing the trailers to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but I figured that once in the boondocks the company would keep any amateur no matter his ineptitude since they paid only $5 an hour, Jack-in-the-Box wages by Alaskan standards.

 

The company wanted to hack a road through the forest near Wasilla to abet its scheme to unload parcels of miasmatic swamp on the unsuspecting. The foreman, a young guy from Montana, was not fooled by me, but it didn’t matter. Considering the rest of the crew.

 

We got the dregs. One young lout from North Dakota insisted on bringing a portable radio to work the first day. By the time he showed up I had developed a little touch with the saw, and when he put his radio on a stump and tuned in Anchorage Top Forty I dropped a tree on his radio before the second, “Let me hear you say ‘Yeah.’”

 

Along with this specimen, we had a former cow milker from Wisconsin (who spent the lunch hour studying the mysteries of the Rosicrucians) and a guy from Minnesota, whose last job had been with a mosquito abatement experiment. He held out his arm and let the skeets bite him. Perfect for our crew.

 

The work was hellish, mostly because of the bugs. Although it was hot and steamy in the woods, we had to wear gloves and head netting, not so much because of the mosquitoes as for protection from the yellow jackets. The yellow jacket nests were in every other tree, and in burrows under the ground. Bees flew up your pant leg, they bumbled under your netting, they hit any exposed part of the wrist with uncanny accuracy.

 

The bees were the nemesis of Frank Peets, one of life’s corncobs. Former career Army, he’d been shot up so bad in Vietnam, that, internally, he’d lost half of everything. He even claimed he only got hard on one side. Mustered out, he used his disability dough to buy a fishing camp on the north side of Cook Inlet. But he lacked the grubstake to stock it.

 

First he entered a snowmobile race for a cash prize. A few miles from the finish he led the pack when his Snopac flipped. He banged against a tree and smashed his leg. The jubilant finishers shot past him and he lay in a drift forgotten, for ten hours. Now, just out of hospital, still hobbling, he was with us as a sawyer.

 

Peets started the job with a partner, but the partner immediately slashed his leg with the saw, and got medevac-ed out of the woods. A few days later, Peets found himself standing on a monster bee nest. Pouring out by the thousands, the yellow jackets enveloped him. His chain saw flew in the air, he staggered back, tumbled over a log and fell, separating a disc. Then the bees really had him.

 

I felt somewhat sympathetic until it became clear he was paralyzed, and that we would have to carry his 210-pound carcass a mile and a half over brush. His paralysis, however, only lasted a few hours. He mended in a month, and he and his gimpy partner bought a boatload of supplies for the fishing camp with their combined disability insurance money.

 

I am not making this up. On their way across the inlet on a calm summer’s day, a freak storm blew up, sunk the boat, and the luckless duo, sans boat and supplies, got pulled out of the drink by a Coast Guard helicopter. Suffering from exposure, they both were hospitalized again. It amazed me that Peets in no way felt disheartened by any of this. Despite all, he thought Alaska paradise, and extolled “God’s country,” as he limped around, beating his frostbitten fingers against a tree.

 

For $15 a week Cissy and I rented a converted school bus located behind Wasilla’s gas station. The mosquito abatement guy from Minnesota and his wife would bring over their infant son to visit us. They’d stay for hours, their entire conversation aimed at the drooler on the floor. Not only that, the guy actually bought a parcel of the swamp we were cutting through after seeing the color brochure the company put out.

 

Ironically, it was obvious the guy from Minnesota would hang on and prosper in Alaska, while the romantic Peets, for all his maundering about paradise, would be crushed out like a cigar butt. The guy from Minnesota didn’t think about mountains or sunset vistas, or even good fishing. He was Snopes. In 20 years he would own the gas station, the grocery, and the cafe. It’s the dreary pluggers who succeed in harsh climates.

 

By the end of August we finished the roads and I had enough money to get us out before snow flew. By flying nine- and ten-hour stints, we crossed the border into Cut Bank, Montana, three days after leaving Wasilla. I’d scared myself so many times in the mountain passes I’d decided to go back on the east side of the Rockies.

 

But at Cut Bank I had another thought. I would visit my cousin in Missoula, even though this involved crossing the Rockies at one of its higher points. Laboriously, I coaxed the plane up to its service ceiling, 10,000 feet. A 30-knot headwind had been forecast, but at altitude it seemed stronger. As the granite peaks loomed closer I got the feeling that this wasn’t going to work out for me.

 

Half a mile past the little town of East Glacier Park the trap door opened, and whatever magic that holds up planes ceased to work. A strong westerly rushing over the mountains had created a tremendous downdraft on the lee side. Our sickening plunge earthward reminded me of soaring, only inversely. When a glider hits a thermal generating a lot of lift, whu-ummp, you go up like Hertz was taking you out of the driver’s seat. Our plight was the reverse. Somebody had hit the down button on the elevator. The wings were quivering and it was all I could do to get the plane turned around, away from the granite and back toward the valley. Never mind Missoula. We’d stay on the east side of the Rockies.

 

So we drifted back, through the Dakotas. In the Black Hills, we flew past Mount Rushmore to inspect the presidents at eye level. I had Cissy snap a picture of me with the monument in the background, to be entitled “Five Great Men,” which I thought might make a Christmas card one day. But I didn’t like the result: in the picture it looks like George is staring into a cage at a chipmunk.

 

Three weeks out of Wasilla, we were back in San Francisco and down to bare metal again. I was sitting in a newspaper bar when I heard that the National Enquirer, king of the check-stand tabloids, had a guy recruiting reporters that very minute at the Clift Hotel. With my last three bucks, I cabbed to the Clift, walked in unannounced on the Enquirer’s diminutive Mr. Munchkin, and demanded an interview, figuring they’d be looking for somebody with brass balls.

 

Munchkin asked me if I could sing birds out of trees. My dulcet tones toppled even the vultures. Could I stand to be in Paris one day and Mexico City the next? I could tolerate it. He asked if I had the nerve to buttonhole any celebrity. I said I’d give buttonhole a whole new meaning.

 

Thus, Cissy and I flew to National Enquirer headquarters in Lantana, Florida, arriving literally penniless. For more than a year we’d been living in trailers, under trees, on airstrips, seldom two nights in the same place. When I reported for work, my wardrobe easily fit into a modest-size duffle bag, with plenty of room left for a watermelon. But in a couple of days I had a brand-new Hertz gas guzzler, a wad of cash, spiffy clothes, and the promise of a stack of credit cards to come, everything from a lowly American Express to an exotic RCA Global Communications card that insured press telex by satellite from anywhere.

 

Faustus,” I said as I admired my new floral shirt in the hotel mirror, “there’s a tag on this.” That came later. In the meantime, I would enjoy my surroundings.

 

A mercenary attitude prevailed at the Enquirer, “Home of the Whoppers,” as I called it. There’s lots of money and lots of travel, and everybody tries to grab as much as possible. Of course, as Bruce, my editor said, you have to keep your socks up. The Enquirer swallowed reporters by the handful on Monday and had diarrhea on Friday, when the glum looks at the Oyster Bar revealed whose garters had come undone. Good money, unstable personalities, and an uncertain future, led inevitably to a carpe diem outlook.

 

Most of the editors and reporters are “Brits,” guys form England, Scotland, South Africa, and Australia. The Brits, by and large, are rowdy, good-natured, hard-drinking, soccer-playing Monty Python fans who love to go out to the local honky-tonks and try conclusions with the rednecks. As a result, Enquirer staffers are banned from a couple of Lantana dives. In all, the office atmosphere was something like the petty officers’ mess aboard HMS Invincible.

 

The most fun I had in all this was arranging the logistics for a visit from outer space. The Enquirer had determined that a small town on the Perdenales River in Texas had reported more saucer sightings than any other town in America. So they wanted to dress up a couple of guys as space aliens, have them walk into town, get the big Texas Howdy, and hand out gift certificates.

 

To play the extraterrestrials, I hired a couple of muscular midgets through the stuntmen’s local in Hollywood. Midgets because I thought small aliens would be less intimidating to the gun-toting Texas yokel; muscular because they had to carry 85 pounds of body armor under the costumes.

 

I think this prank would have created a satisfying national sensation-ette had it come off. But at the last minute the midgets developed cold feet. They were professionals. They knew the armor wouldn’t stop the really heavy rounds. In Texas, they felt, it was a sure thing they’d be shot.

 

Even so, I was really rolling with the Enquire. My interview with a waitress in Billings, Montana, resulting in “Marlon Brando Is the Biggest Cheapskate I’ve Ever Met,” got kudos. And by using the Enquirer’s Book of Quacks, I found a doctor who said he could predict heart attacks years in advance. I got a hero-gram from the publisher, Generoso Pope, for “The Childhood of Jerry Lewis.” They lapped me up in Lantana. I was a Yank. But I kept my socks up.

 

However. I was moving fast. As the shuttle from Miami descended for landing at West Palm Beach airport, I could look down on happy people snorkeling and surfing. I had to rush back to turn in a file on a pterodactyl sighting in Eagle Pass, or an update on how Vitamin C can save a marriage. The previous year I had been working and living outdoors. Now I roared around every night with the alcohol-fueled Brits. I was getting barroom pallor in Florida.

 

My decline at Home of the Whoppers began with an assignment to take Lucky to Washington to meet the presidential pups. Lucky, a woebegone mongrel, was the Enquirer’s mascot and had been dragged all over to be photographed with celebrities: “Lucky Meets Lucy,” “Lucky Meets Bob Hope.”   Lucky also had met King Timahoe, Nixon’s dog, and now the publisher wanted the mutt to meet the puppies of President Ford’s best friend.

 

I went to Washington, and for a week pestered Ford’s press staff with my ludicrous request. Finally, because I was being such an asshole, I got through to presidential press secretary Ron Nessen himself. “Absolutely not,” said Nessen. “We won’t lend ourselves to this kind of gimmick.” Hmph. This Nessen was just a lowly ex-newsie but now he thought he was better than Lucille Ball. Like a lot of other moralists, Nessen isn’t terribly bright, and he’s been handled by events accordingly.

 

Right after my conversation with Nessen, I had to rush to New York to interview the quack about that machine he invented to detect heart attacks. His wife, hearing that I had to return immediately to my stake-out at the White House, and finding a chance to take me aside, asked me to deliver a personal letter in her behalf to a high ranking member of Ford’s inner circle.

Yes, knock, knock. Sure enough, when I opened her letter in my hotel room, it was just as I suspected: a missive to her sweetie, and compromising, too.

 

Now, I might as well say, in the news biz I had never scrupled about opening the odd desk drawer, nor did I hesitate if my eye happened to alight on private correspondence.   I thought it okay to glean that way, or maybe to get some leverage to pry loose something. But was I really willing to use this windfall billet-doux to a middle-aged adulterer as my entrée to the White House so that Lucky could meet the presidential pups? I began to suspect I didn’t have the garters for a long career at Home of the Whoppers. In a word, I destroyed the letter and accepted defeat on the Lucky assignment.

 

Other considerations entered into my decision to quit. For one thing, I wasn’t making any money. Like everybody else, my plan had been to grab every dime I could. Yet, like almost everybody else, I wasn’t banking much. We were all spending, spending. Nobody thought about a rainy day. When I went to Disney World and took the ride called Pirates of the Caribbean, it reminded me of the Enquirer staff on Friday night at the Oyster Bar. Rapine and pillage and a round for the house

 

A year before I rejoiced if I found a bar that served a cheap draft. Now I had to drink designer ale. A restaurant with paper napkins wasn’t good enough. The whole thing was made worse by the tabloid’s lavish use of cash advances. Every time you went out of town you could get a cash advance; so every time you did. I began to think the advances and the Enquirer credit cards were mine.

 

Even Cissy, always game and who had come to Florida to help me spend money, said we had gone too far. Finally the accounting department brought me to heel. I was shocked. I had pissed away $10,000 in a matter of months. I winced all the more because I knew accounting hadn’t got the results yet of my latest credit spree in New Orleans. It was time to bow out. I left the day the bill came in for my long-distance credit card calls.  The bean counter said he was concerned. I told him I get back to him after lunch.

 

But by 1 p.m. Cissy and I were 700 feet over the shore of Lake Okeechobee, headed north with the few wads of stray cash I had left. I didn’t really have a plan, but I thought it would be a good idea to keep a floating address for a while. Then, in Hope, Arkansas, we met this guy who’d told us about some ghost towns in southern Arizona that could be reached only by four-wheel drive or by airplane. You could just move in to any of the old houses and nobody would bother you. And with a greasy thumbprint he stamped the location of the ghost town on the sectional map.

 

I thought we’d been there in two days but hadn’t counted on the Texas wind. The wind blew out of the west at 40 knots, gusting to 55. The little Cessna took a tremendous pounding as we bucked along. Because of the turbulence, I had to slow the plane to 80, which meant that, with the head wind, our actual ground speed was something like 50 mph. When we looked down at the highway we could see the westbound traffic overtaking us. I had never experienced such a stubborn typhoon. At times (although I refrained from mentioning it to Cissy) the plane was not entirely under my command. The stronger gusts would tilt us over 50 degrees, then slew us around the other way. It was disconcerting.

 

Peering ahead, I made out a tiny crop-duster field on the outskirts of Ballinger. Unhappily, the wind blew perpendicular to the dirt runway.   It meant landing on a rough field with a gusty 90-degree crosswind.   Take my word for it. It’s tricky in a little airplane.   When I set up the approach, the nose of the plane crabbed 45 degrees into the wind. We were sliding toward the runway sideways. The wind, spilling over the trees and outbuildings near the ground, created bone-jarring turbulence. The plane groaned, banged, and grated as we descended. Just over the threshold of the runway, I straightened out with full down-wind rudder with accompanying full opposite aileron, and touched down on the upwind wheel, just exactly as it’s supposed to be done.

 

Thank God Cissy was there. Usually, my heroic acts pass unnoticed (although fuck-ups are SRO). But now I had a witness, someone to whom I could turn in later years and say, “Tell everybody about the perfect crosswind landing I made in Ballinger, Texas that day when the wind was blowing 90 knots.” To celebrate we’d splurge on a cab. Then we’d go to the nearest bar and I would buy drinks while I explained it all again. The cab driver had a smile. We were in a dry county.

 

The wind howled a gale for four days while we were stuck at the Blackstone Motel in Ballinger. Out of prostrating boredom, I wasted a lot of money in this dry little town – I don’t know how. But by the time the wind abated, I had run through the dough. That’s how I came to take my next job, as a cemetery maintenance man and gravedigger at the Ballinger Methodist Church.

 

Sometimes I get the impression people think being a gravedigger is quite the romantic job. This isn’t true. I was the only applicant, and the church was glad to get me. After all, digging a grave is just like digging a swimming pool, only smaller.   I’d like to claim that in the course of my work I turned over some musty bones that I could philosophize and crack jokes about like you-know-who. Mostly I watered the flowers and cut the grass. The only memento mori that crossed my mind concerned my wish for my own marker to be flush with the ground, so the lawnmower could go over it and the dogs wouldn’t pee on it.

 

Naturally I read all the epitaphs. Only one standout, the slab for Enoch Brubaker: 1864-1929. A Latin tag which turned out to mean, “I was not, I was, I am not, I care not.”

 

By the time we left windy Ballinger the prospect of the ghost town in the sun-drenched pristine desert held unlimited appeal. I will not reveal the location of the ghost town, and it doesn’t matter, because we never arrived. Somewhere near Tippet, Texas, the engine started getting rough. Then, at 700 feet above ground level, the engine blew a cylinder. When the fuselage began shuddering violently, I pulled the throttle, perhaps too abruptly, and suddenly it was very quiet. The prop windmilled languidly. After trimming for 70 mph, I started studying the ground for landing possibilities since it was pretty certain that within a minute or so we’d be there, ready or not.

 

I spotted the Tippet field, but I thought I was too far away to make it, and I was right. Our glide ended in a pasture about 50 yards short of the runway. We took a couple of bounces and landed on the concrete threshold, taking out a runway light. When the airport mechanic pulled the oil screen, he could only shake his head. Chunks of metal and shavings in the oil. A cylinder breaking up. Repair would mean a tear-down. Big money. It seemed to me the mechanic grinned somewhat sharkishly as he delivered the bad news. We both could see who was over the barrel. I sold him the plane for a grand, and three days later Cissy and I were back in San Francisco.

 

It didn’t take long to settle back into a hedonistic routine. During our 18-month absence someone had invented hot tubs. For a while, though, I missed the vividness of life as an airplane bum. Finally, as it must, the experience faded into a concatenation of grizzled tales that I only trot out if I’ve had a few.

 

I sought America, found it, but in the end put it back. Every once in a while I fantasize myself pictured in one of those snapshots tacked on the wall at the fishing lodge in Canada. I am smiling vacantly and holding up a fish shaped like the United Sates.   Scrawled in ballpoint, “He hooked a ‘whopper.” I’ve put a check next to “See America.”   Except…I keep thinking about the ghost town in Arizona. I know exactly where it is. The guy’s thumbprint is still on my map. If I had an airplane, I could be there tomorrow.

 

October, 1977

                                                

 

 

Start with a Bicycle   The Independent

While reading a Guardian article “Key Points at a Glance” about the Paris Climate Accord I wondered if anything in the terms applied to me. The pact, inked initially by 186 countries, sets near-term non-binding modest goals for emission reductions of CO2. The United States delegation, since overruled by Trump, hoped to reduce emissions 17 percent by 2020, from a 2010 baseline. Would I have had to do anything? Most of the other pact signatories set similar modest and voluntary national goals for short-term reductions. Thankfully, I couldn’t find anything in the terms asking anything of me.

The Guardian thumb sucker found some skeptics to say that even the pact’s modest goals may be hard to realize, given the realities of politics, wars, and population pressures, but at least they aren’t unrealistic if the major emitters decide to cooperate. The United States, for example, could have make its initially pledged goal by shutting down most of the country’s obsolete coal-fired generating plants.

Still, some parade rainmakers, such as John Schellnhuh, a deep-dish climatologist from the University of Manchester, said that even if the pledges were faithfully fulfilled, the global temperature still would bump up mid-century by at least 2.7 degrees Celsius. If that happens, by 2050 the Miami Dolphins will have a big home field advantage.

The long-term goals in the accord are more problematic. The United States delegation, pre-Trump, agreed to try to reduce emissions from that 2010 baseline by 80 percent at mid-century. Eighty percent! The other major emitters, China, the European Union, India, Russia, also agreed that, down the road somewhere, on the back half of the century, they too might be able to make significant cuts in combustion. Earth Policy Institute maven Lester Brown says this would require “worldwide mobilization at wartime speed,” and that, barring a so-far un-descried energy miracle, such large cuts are going to mean major changes in human lifestyles. Does he mean my lifestyle?

A good reason to postpone heavy lifting until later is because of the popular hope that scientists will discover a "miracle" energy source, as yet unknown, that will replace carbon entirely, or phase it out. The miracle must be able to produce a comparable amount of energy without emitting greenhouse gases, while also not being too expensive or radioactive. And it has to scale up quickly to avoid economic dislocations.

In an interview in the Atlantic Monthly, Microsoft mogul Gates plumps for a massive infusion of research dollars into energy. Gates rehearses what everybody knows, that presently there is no substitute for carbon on the massive scale necessary to continue our profligate use of electricity and gasoline. The alternatives, solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear, can all contribute, but each has environmental drawbacks, and none can be scaled up in time to provide for an expected world population of 9 billion in 2050.

Conservation is not on the table. Dropping energy consumption 80 percent through conservation would roil the economy. Serious conservation, not just no-growth, but conscious withering, would entail rationing and restrictions, and would be wildly unpopular everywhere. France suggested a modest price hike on gas and got stung by bees. No politician or world leader has suggested serious cuts in consumption.

I’m stepping up. Solely in the interests of starting a conversation, I ask the question: “How could I reduce my personal energy use by 80 percent?” But first I stipulate. I won’t do it. I know in advance it would be too difficult. This is a thought experiment.

According to the World Bank, the average American adult is responsible for 17 tons of CO2 emissions annually (2016). I have used various carbon footprint calculators, and every time my carbon footprint comes in at a bit over 20 tons annually, mostly the result of driving and flying. My favorite calculator, because it is easiest to use, comes from a partnership of the University California, Berkeley and the California Environmental Protection Agency. The CoolClimate carbon calculator is an on-line feature that measures an individual’s annual carbon emissions by metric tons. The algorithm is based on the federal Comprehensive Environmental Data Archive for Economic Environmental Systems, which certainly sounds imposing.

A few figures to get started. The US population is 320 million, 260 million of whom are over the age of 15 (World Bank). The average per capita puff of carbon dioxide in the US is 17 metric tons. But according to CoolClimate, the average annual CO2 smut emitted by an individual living in Petaluma, Sonoma County, and commanding a modest income similar to mine, amounts to 22 metric tons of CO2. Punching in my own emission estimates, I find I'm pretty close to the average, at 21 metric tons and change. Of that a whopping 10 tons is the result of travel by airplane and car. Household, which includes heating and cooking, amounts to 4 tons. Food, 2.1 tons. The other general category, shopping, fills out the remaining 4.9 tons. In my thought experiment, I will reduce my footprint, through conservation, by approximately 80 percent, to about four tons.

 

New York Times environmental reporter Justin Gillis, in another Paris Accords thumb sucker, says climate scientists have found that the earth has warmed 1.7 degrees Celsius since 1880. If greenhouse gases are left unchecked, these deep-dish climatologists say, the global temperature would rise ultimately by 8 degrees C by the end of the century. That, they argue, would undermine the planet's capacity to sustain humanity. The UN climate panel recently said the same thing, adding that the end of all hope could be near, like in a decade.  

    

Sounds serious. So given this pending calamity, what does reporter Gillis suggest the average mope might do to help? Well, the mope should plug the leaks in the walls, turn off the lights when he leaves a room, lower the thermostat, drive less, waste less, want less. Buy an electric car. Put solar panels on the roof. Don't go flying. The usual stuff. But, Gillis adds that, actually, all this is more feel-good than efficacious, because it is not nearly enough to curb implacable global heating, even if a sizable cohort complied, which is not likely. There will have to be "national policies” if the world is to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent, Gillis says. Draconian, exacting, highly intrusive policies. Or else a miracle.

    

But my thought experiment will examine only what I need to do personally to drop to four tons.

    

I am not the first to think of hardcore personal conservation. True, I'm confining myself to thinking. Others walk the walk. Peter Kalmus, for instance, an atmospheric scientist working for NASA at the Jet Propulsion Lab, says that he’s largely been able to avoid burning fossil fuels. “I now emit about 1 ton of CO2 per year, down from 19 tons." But, as it turns out, not really. Although he resists, his job requires flying to conferences around the world. He could refuse to fly, quit his post, but no. So he doesn’t count.

      

Donnachadh McCarthy got a book out of his experiment, My Carbon-Free Year,” which was reviewed in The Independent. (His wife hated that year.) Colin Beaver wrote about going carbon-lite, in No Impact Man. (2010). And Ma’ikwe Ludwig, director of the Center for Sustainable and Cooperative Culture at the Dancing Rabbit EcoVillage, claims she uses only 10 percent of the average national energy burn. Apparently it can be done.

    

By looking at the World Bank's data for worldwide per capita emissions, country by country, I'll be able to determine where I'm going to wind up as a carbon refugee. It sure won't be Qatar (44 tons), or the United Arab Emirates (20 tons) or Luxembourg (20 tons). It won't even by Russia (12) the UK (7.5) or Mexico (8). Even India is a little too rich for me (5 tons). I'm looking down range, at Tunisia (2.1), Indonesia (2.3) or tropically lush French Polynesia (3.2).

    

My final pick, however, is going to be North Korea (at a World Bank estimate of 3 tons per capita). It's the sensationalism of it. I like the idea that to meet my rigorous carbon goal, I will have to live like a sequestered, secretive North Korean. The pick also makes sense because North Korea famously practices the ideology of Juche, usually translated as "self-reliance," which is a kind of conservation. For political reasons, the Hermit Kingdom doesn't want to be beholden to or dependent on other countries. (By the by, I have just enough arithmetic to know that 3 is not exactly 20 percent of 21. But the World Bank figure of 3 tons is approximate, because the opaque Hermit Kingdom doesn't share numbers. The unreliable testimony of defectors paints a picture of squalor, deprivation and hardship in the countryside. Yet smuggled video from Pyongyang shows warmly dressed, slightly chubby citizens peddling one-speed bicycles down wide uncrowded boulevards on which we see NOT ONE SCRAP of litter anywhere. The people looked reasonably well off. So I'm thinking that a more realistic per capita figure might be closer to 4 tons.)

  

In my budget, I'm going to knock 4 tons of carbon right off the top. I won't be flying to North Korea to look things over for myself because before I even pick up my pencil, I will renounce air travel. Last year I flew to New York round trip twice, and also made one short hop to Phoenix and back. My share of smudge, riding coach, four tons. For the purpose of thought experimenting, I will telecommute. No airplane rides.

    

But now comes the strain. No way out, I have to junk my car. CoolClimate calculator tells me that 12,000 miles per year in four-cylinder 1.5 liter Honda pumps 6 tons of bad gas into the atmosphere. My sister might say, "You could drive the same mileage and make less smoke by buying a Prius (5 tons) or a Nissan electric Leaf, 1.5 tons at point of generation (CoolClimate). It's like saying the world can divest 80 percent if everybody uses cloth bags at the grocery store. For the mark I'm shooting at, I can't even ride the bus for that mileage (1.4 tons) or the train (2.1). I have to start the thought experiment with a bicycle (0 tons).

    

With my wings clipped, and car free, I'm now at a more manageable 11 tons. I'm like a Greenlander (12.1) or a man from Turkmenistan (12.2) (World Bank). The next obvious cut has to be electricity. North Korea is electrified, but the national policy is to conserve. The country has some coal reserves, but prefers to export coal to Russia for cash. Rather than go into energy debt, the North Koreans turn out the lights at night. That is why an astronaut in the international space station, as he hurtles across the Korean peninsula at night, sees a big patch of black at the north end. From low orbit, the world's cities sparkle with light. Not Pyongyang. Black as pitch. Other countries, such as Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, also conserve energy by the expedient of frequent disruptions of service caused by an overloaded and faltering grid. North Korea turns off the juice on purpose.

    

Happily, I live in a temperate climate. Going without air conditioning, for instance, would be unpleasant in summertime Houston, Phoenix, New Orleans and much of the sweltering world. But here in Sonoma County we can do without AC. Climate change will have winners and losers; and our prospects here look pretty good. I'll have to scratch the refrigerator, however, the washing machine and the dryer. Some in the big city have found they can do without refrigeration, says the New York Times.   Besides, I live within a mile of a major supermarket, so I can let Safeway handle it. I can drink powdered milk, eat the frozen blueberries as they thaw, and use olive oil instead of mayo. Eggs will keep for a week.

    

As for the washer and dryer, I will stamp on my clothes like grapes, in the bathtub, and hang the wash on a clothesline in the kitchen.

    

The North Korean defectors say that the peasants bathe in cold water. Hmm. I'm going to have to disconnect the natural gas hot water heater for sure, but on warm days I will set out jugs of water in the sun. After a few hours, bathwater. Probably the best way to conserve cooking gas is to toss all the cookware but one pot.

    

A major reduction (.8 tons) will be realized by turning off the furnace. Natural gas space heating for a 700 square foot apartment contributes 1.5 tons (CoolClimate). With the heater off, I'll keep warm by personal insulation, layers of wool and fleece. This isn't anything ground breaking. Lots of North Koreans do it, apparently. And even a few Americans (New York Times). A good idea might be to set up a sleeping tent inside my living room to hold body heat at night.

    

Let's stop and compute. By turning off the refrigerator, washing machine, dryer, water heater, furnace, and by using only a few liters per month of natural gas for cooking, I've banished another five tons of CO2 (CoolClimate). I'm now down to 5 tons, comparable to the residents of India and Libya (World Bank).

    

As dieters know, the last few pounds are the hardest. I'm not much of a consumer compared to my sister, but still, I'm contributing my mite to the economy. At least now that the car is gone I don’t have to buy new tires. I won't buy any more clothes. No restaurant meals. Forget about Happy Hour. I have to eat. But I don't have to eat flesh. Red meat, of course, is a bane of environmentalists. Cows burp methane, slurp a lot of water, foul the aquifer with flop. Transforming forests into pasture makes a bad bargain for carbon sequestration. Giving up red meat can shrink the individual’s footprint by almost a ton (CoolClimate). Michael Pollen says eat mostly plants. The closer one can get to a vegan board the less likely that grandchildren will spit on your grave. By giving up meat, I'm finally down to four tons.

    

How much actual hardship will I experience as a North Korean carbon brother?   I ride a bicycle to the store, put the day's marketing in a cloth bag, cook the vegetable stew in one pot, take a sponge bath with sun-warmed water, got to bed at sundown under a pile of blankets, and maybe listen to a little propaganda from the wall speaker as I drift off to sleep. But I can sleep with a clear conscience knowing that I have done my bit, and knowing that other Americans will do the same as soon as they realize the consequences of procrastination.

  

Then I shake myself. I am not doing any of this. Neither is anybody else, if it isn't forced on him by strenuous circumstances, such as a cataclysmic Northern Hemisphere die-off, by which time it will be too late. What I will do instead is visualize the energy miracle. Close my eyes, and wish for it to come true, as advised in The Secret. I'll trust in magic. Because without magic, an 80 percent reduction has about as much chance as that famous and hapless snowball in the bad place.

 

 

The Boy Scouts of America raised me. From the Orange County Register

I was born in 1943 and spent the first 15 years in Stockton, in the San Joaquin Valley. Although hard to comprehend now, in those simpler days, in a small agricultural town, it was not merely acceptable but almost mandatory to be a Boy Scout. Every boy I knew was in Scouting. We wore our uniforms to school, and the Scout meetings were held in the school cafeteria. I joined the Cub Scouts on my eighth birthday, and stayed in Scouting until I enlisted in the Navy at 17.

I remember being sworn in. I walked up onto the stage in the school auditorium, with a dozen other boys, and before a gathered audience of parents, solemnly intoned the scout pledge: "On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country, to be square, and to obey the law of the pack."

Be square. Obey the law of the pack. Nobody even snickered.

Every Wednesday night thereafter I went to a Scout meeting. During Cub Scouts, a mom was in charge, which meant, mainly, crafts. We built model airplanes and coffee-can stoves. That was OK, but Scouting really didn't begin until age 12, when one donned the khaki paramilitary uniform of the true Boy Scout.

A couple of the dads were Scoutmasters. I far as I know there was absolutely nothing weird about them. Dads were Scoutmasters because it gave them an excuse to get out of the house. All the boys in my troop were completely normal pre-pubescents: that is, dirty-minded and profane. We speculated about sex constantly. But as for the notion that any of these neighborhood dads were weird: It never crossed anybody's mind.

Besides, these dad-Scoutmasters never figured much in Scouting as I knew it. Sometimes at summer camp we'd see an ambitious kid who wanted to accumulate merit badges and become an Eagle Scout. But no kid in my troop gave a damn. So there was no reason to pay much attention to Scoutmasters.

Most of us made it to First Class and thought it enough. At summer camp I picked up the usual four merit badges that everybody got: swimming, lifesaving, canoeing, rowing -- the ones that involved water and that were fun. But badges didn't mean much to us.

Scouting first of all was the Wednesday-night meeting, a sanctioned getaway from chores and homework. We rode our Schwinns to the schoolyard and horsed around in front until we were called into the cafeteria, where we learned about first aid. Almost everything they taught us was wrong. We spent hours practicing a bogus method of artificial respiration, pressing on the lower back, pulling on the elbows. All wrong. Tourniquets. Wrap the Scout scarf around the injured arm, insert a stick, twist and hold until the victim's bloodless arm has to be amputated. We knuckled our brows, struggling to learn the 12 pressure points to control arterial bleeding. And snake bites!

All of us had little gray rubber cylinders, inside of which were a razor blade and a tourniquet string. If a rattler bit a fellow Scout on the foot you were supposed to cut an X and suck out the venom. There was always some kid: "What if he gets a snakebite on his….? Would you?"

The other big deal during the school year was the weekend outing, the camping trip. We were issued an Army surplus shelter half. We rolled our gear inside and tied it to a wooden pack frame. We had L-shaped official Scout flashlights that clipped on the belt, Scout pocketknives, and flat Scout canteens carried over the shoulder on a strap. We had the Scout compass and the Scout aluminum mess kit.

On Saturday morning we lugged our packs over to the school where the Scout dads had brought their cars. The packs were tossed in the back of a pickup truck and we were driven for two or three hours to a woodsy locale.

It seems to me now that once we got there we had no supervision. Maybe the Scoutmaster dad gave a few general orders about digging pit latrines and keeping a bucket of water next to the fire. But that was it. The dads went off and built their own campfire, lounged around, talked about deer hunting, and, I'm pretty sure, drank. The Scouts were on their own. OK by us. The main question of course: Who had the cigarettes? Other than that, the rest of Saturday was devoted to fixing something to eat.

First we ate all the candy bars and a kind of half-dome devil's food cupcake popular back then that I think was called a Sno-Ball. Then we cooked the eggs and bacon. We tried to make pancakes, which turned to charcoal on the outside, goop inside.

Summer Scout camp was a lot more organized. It was set up along the paramilitary lines envisioned by Scouting's English founder, Gen. Robert Baden-Powell. All of us in my troop assumed that military service followed high school. And in fact, thanks to Boy Scouts, when we finally landed in recruit training we had been preprogrammed to march, salute, set up a tent, care for a uniform, police the area, do KP. And we could all shoot.

That was because the National Rifle Association donated .22s and ammunition and provided volunteer instructors for the camp rifle range. I learned to squeeeeze the trigger at Boy Scout camp, and even as I think about it I can smell the cordite and bore cleaner mixing with the scent of pine needles, and see the metal silhouettes of squirrels and bobcats.

In the afternoon, we took five-mile "survival hikes," in which some well-meaning adult tried to persuade us not to drink all our water at once or that there was intrinsic value in knowing one tree from another. But the really big deal was the nightly campfire program.

Whoever ran the camp tried to make these gatherings entertaining. It was a tough proposition, getting the attention of hundreds of semi-feral adolescents in dirty khaki uniforms. The answer was fire.

First, some Scout personage, an elder, wearing a Smokey hat and shorts revealing pink kneecaps, droned a few improving homilies, none of which quieted the hubbub in the bleachers. Then some young guy came on. I think that in civilian life he was a cop. He told the "Indian story," which was always the same. But we all shut up and listened to it anyway. Once, these very woods were inhabited by a warrior tribe. Because of their bravery in battle, the spirits of the sky favored them. But then (for this or that reason) they angered the gods. And we knew what was coming and were absolutely still. Way off in the dark woods, high in the trees, a fireball suddenly appeared.

Then the fireball came screaming out of the trees seemingly straight for the bleachers. It headed like a fiery meteor straight at us. But, at the last second, it didn't plow into the stands. Instead it struck and ignited the kerosene-soaked pyramid of logs in the campfire pit, sending flames high, revealing the stark trees all around.

In retrospect, this nightly lighting of the campfire was fraught with risk and opportunity for litigation. The kid lighting the fireball, on a platform in the trees, could have fallen and broken his neck. The fireball somehow could have detached from the wire runner and barreled into bleachers crowded with adolescents. Or the fireball might have fizzled out before it could ignite the waiting stack of logs, causing an embarrassing letdown. I'm sure no prudent authority would allow anything like this to be staged today. But Scouts back in the '50s was a different thing. Parents obligingly turned over their young males for paramilitary conditioning without a pause. "Liability" hadn't really entered the language.

Parents trusted the Scouts, and boys gladly joined up and more or less took the program. Being a Scout was a given, like school and a paper route. Now, many suburban adolescents regard Scouting with disdain, as weak, lame and pathetic compared with the online ethos of hedonism and cool music.

I'm still conflicted. I'm glad I can tie knots, and I don't really regret the hours wasted studying the 12 pressure points. I enjoyed the camaraderie of Scouting, and although it's corny I've always believed in the wisdom of the Scout motto. There have been too many unhappy days when I wasn't prepared. On the other hand, I can see why kids today might look askance at Scouting and wonder about a hidden agenda to lure youths into the military maw. It never entered my 12-year-old noggin that I was on an assembly line headed for further processing in the ranks.

 

 

Getting fired helps you realize there's no time for bosses   Tulevision

 

Since being downsized by corporate a few months ago, I’ve come to realize that I don’t have time for a job. I don’t know how I ever managed to fit a cumbersome, chronophaging work ethic into my crowded life. Unemployed, I have been busy every moment, without even eight minutes (much less, eight hours) to spare for an employer’s agenda. 

 

Initially, I thought that being mowed down in the recession’s first wave would leave me with time hanging on my hands like training weights. Instead, I’m amazed that anybody is able to organize a life that includes (as mine once did) a freeway commute followed by the usual eight/five holding down a pod amidst countless other drones, all with foreheads spot-welded to the tube.


 

Now if I review my day I find no gap where I could shoehorn a remunerated effort. It’s not that I’ve become a sluggard, either. I arise as always when first light hits the window. Nor do I dally over the coffee pot and the crossword puzzle. 

 

So what happened?  After being dismissed abruptly, corporate-style, I admit to being a little miffed about how easily the company dispensed with services that the day before had commanded a living wage. During these first weeks I began to take long morning walks, to replay in my mind all the events leading up to the catastrophe, and to mull the appropriate revenge. The autumnal air was brisk, the trees changing hue. The county watershed hard by my apartment complex afforded interesting trails. The morning mile of my past began to stretch out incrementally until today the minimum daily requirement afoot has lengthened to two hours. Opium-like endorphins flood my brain and trigger Coleridge-esque reverie. A few months of these long morning rambles and my paunch melted. I’m lean as a hickory, and my 57-year-old integument, which had just begun to accumulate all the ordinary crotchety aches, now feels, not youthful by a long shot, but pleasantly well-tuned. 
 

 

In a very short time it has become obvious that a long walk every morning is vital for my wellbeing and mustn’t be shouldered aside by bagatelle. On the way home from the walking trail I pass the neighborhood shopping center, which is typical in every way, with the usual mix of corporate outlets (Albertsons, Rite-Aid), except, that to combat an outbreak of skateboarders and other teenage Yo-dudes, the management has taken to playing over the outdoor speakers a repertoire of classical music. This has exterminated the teens.

 

A Korean doughnut shop offers comfortable alfresco seating and a cup of Joe for $.60. An additional two bits delivers a large bundle of reading matter. Nothing could be more pleasant than to listen to Mozart in a milieu free of obnoxious youths, sip a restorative beverage, and muse an hour over the panoply of far-flung events. It’s the best time, too, since the lingering exercise hormones dilute the choler I used to feel at breakfast over the world’s repetitive idiocy. 

 

The point here though is that by the time I get back to the apartment I share with the comrade-spouse lunchtime already has arrived. My consort used to be a teacher, but lately she has thrown that over to retrain at college for a job as a dental artisan. At first she showed signs of alarm at my professional setback, since her own income at the moment depends on student loans. But now she too marvels how I ever had time for a job. 

 

Back at home, a peanut butter sandwich, a glass of water….and a drowsy languor steals over me.  When this feeling overtook me in the workplace I would head upstairs to the cafeteria to re-caffeinate. Now the couch beckons. I settle a pillow under my head... A million words have been written in praise of naps, and I needn’t add any. But isn’t it the finest sort of snooze, to drift off in the droning afternoon? 

 

It so happens that bookcases surround the living room couch. These carry the usual collection of volumes that any two college-educated adults will accumulate, plus hundreds more purchased over the years with good intentions, but which remain unread. When I wake up my eye immediately falls on the spines of books that at one time I very much wanted to read. It’s only natural to take one down for a minute, which becomes another...  Now I can’t see how I could have existed without this interlude of several hours of serious reading for pleasure. It’s an indispensable part of a full life and can’t be squeezed out to make room for annoying martinets and pointless meetings.

 

My consort returns from her class around four, and since my layoff we have taken up the habit of tea. We aren’t Anglophiles at all, and probably aren’t taking tea properly anyway. It’s just the teapot and some homemade biscotti. But what usually happens is that the table talk turns to some mild dispute over this or that. The preferred pronunciation of the word “intaglio” (-tal-yo). Or where the phrase, “Eat, drink and be merry” comes from (Eccles. 8:15).

 

To get this settled, the reference books come down, and one question leads to another... Before we know it the time has come to drape the blankets over the windows and to light the candle. We have found in the last month that candlelit dining really is preferable to having electricity. There is never anything on TV anyway, and my battery-operated portable brings in the classic station almost as clearly as the stereo did. As I put on my sweater and mittens, the consort starts cutting cabbage for soup. Then I begin to hunt up the evening reading, (another innovation since my pink slip.) The reading sort of stands in for the saying of grace in a more religious household.  

 

She sets the topic (“spiritual renewal,” for instance) and I try to find some appropriate lines in one of the college poetry anthologies that we have lugged around from one apartment to another for two decades. 


 

Lately I go straight to Wordsworth, since the old gasbag pretty much had a sentiment on everything. This new-budded ritual reminded me that even though I once passed through the gut of a university I’d never actually read Wordsworth, or any other Lake poet either, being too busy preparing myself for what I no longer have time for. Now I accompany the generic oatmeal with readings from Lords Byron and Tennyson, in place of the East Coast newspapers we no longer get.

 

I’m not saying here that work might not have its uses. As a character-builder for youth. Or as a path to power for the ambitious. And even though I no longer seem to have time for a job, I’m not saying I’ll never turn my hand at something again. If Golden Opportunity knocks at my door tomorrow, I suppose I’ll answer. Although if it’s the landlady I won’t.

 

What Happened to You?   LA Times Reunion

 

To answer your question about the last two and a half decades, I...well, I’m just gonna spam the list here, which ought to save air at the party.  Those curious can look, the rest, Control-dee.  When we left off, I had just given a champagne brunch for the staff after receiving a big check from Hollywood, which you, in your capacity as mail room bottleneck, hid from me until I pleaded like a girl.  Except for buying an airplane I was frugal with that dough and lived on it for a year or so in a plywood cabin, built in pieces in my backyard in San Diego and trucked up to two and a half acres I had in faraway Lassen County.  The mom had dumped me in favor of somebody promising, and I became a single parent for the next interminable decade.  If any social agency had been alerted to this helping officials would have put a stop to it, particularly the part about living in an Amenity-less Horror in a remote venue innocent of roads, plumbing and electricity.  But as you know, nobody cares. 

 

Despite all his lack of advantages, Mike, now 25, has no police record (after it was expunged), no communicable diseases, and only one major addiction (tobacco).  He has a job, his own place, and a career (photography) that has made him an entity.  One of his arty portraits (of a girl holding a fish) hangs in the gallery at YALE UNIVERSITY.  He also shot the art for my latest Cri de Coeur, a book about desert homesteading.  Anyway, during the ten years I had custody, child protective services never tumbled, and I dodged that bullet.

  

After the Hollywood money ran out, I went to work for the Moonies.  I was sitting in the M&M in San Francisco on a Sunday afternoon (after dropping off Mike with his mom).  I am the only patron, the phone rings, and the bartender says,“For you.” Tom Breen had just accepted the job of city editor for the Washington Times and is now scouring the country for anybody at loose ends who could leave immediately for DC. Did the Rev. Moon, through divine prescience, guide Tom to my whereabouts in a low haunt south of Market?  No.  It was my mom who said, “Try the bar.”  I loaded six-year-old Mike into the two-seat Cessna 150 and in a few days reported for duty at the Times. 

 

Having already worked for the National Enquirer for a year as a staff reporter I had a standard of comparison.  At first the Moon had staffed the sheet with graduates of his seminary but Tom convinced him that his legion of zombies needed stiffening with a phalanx of washed up alcoholic hacks.  They began trickling in, many plucked out of the water after papers foundered in Philly and Chicago.  The Moonies, hand-picked by the Rev. himself, knew that secular journalists would attempt to corrupt them.  We did try.  We took them to clam houses on the shore and fed them schnapps.  But we were no match for the strange elixir the Rev. dished out. 

 

Obediently, on the appointed day, all the Moonies on the staff trooped off to Madison Square Garden to get married en masse to strangers.  Later, some Moonie staffers admitted disappointment.  Others, such as Ralph, hit the lottery.  First assigned to be a reporter, Ralph soon found a more comfortable berth riding a lawnmower.  At the Garden he had been hooked up with a teenage Korean girl of stunning beauty.  And she could not speak English.  He could hardly believe his luck.

   

My role, basically, was the police beat in downtown Washington.  A free-fire zone.  We lived on Connecticut Ave., across the street from the zoo.  Michael went to Owl School hard by Rock Creek Park. On weekends I towed him in a cart behind my bicycle to see the sights.  After six months or so I grew weary, gave notice, put Mike in the plane, and we headed back west.  A leisurely flight, short hops, camping at night on the verge of country airstrips.  The Smokeys.  The Ozarks.  In Oklahoma at a motel we watched “Red River.”  The next morning we flew over the Red River, and did steep turns with the hawks.  Michael was too little to see over the console, but I told him about it.

   

After the requisite six months of holiday (partly in Baja) thanks to unemployment insurance, I signed on as health and science writer at the late lamented Los Angeles Herald Examiner.  I said to the outgoing holder of that title, “They hired a quack.”  No matter, he said, in two weeks everybody here will be calling you Doc and asking for advice.  Always say, “Sounds like chronic fatigue syndrome.”  The job was kinda fun.  I went to conferences.  I got to see an autopsy.  I wrote about disgusting diseases that you might get.  I also did some GA, including a trip to Mexico City for the big earthquake (a dinner and a plaque for that one). 

 

But work palls.  Does it not?  And after a few years I moved on.  The sheet was hemorrhaging anyway, and in a few more months everybody else was on the street too. The same agent who had sold my unpublished novel to MGM (occasioning the champagne brunch) reappeared to infuse more money into my flattened wallet.  Now he was a junior mogul at CBS, with green-light power for one-hour pilots.    I did two.  “Exotica,” was preposterous nonsense about two Crunch and Des beachcombers recruited by a mysterious agency to perform missions which required plausible deniability.  This was for Glenn Larson, producer of Magnum P.I. and Battleship Gallactica.  The main point of the script was to provide a write-off for his luxury yacht, Exotica.  I wrote the script on his boat at Marina del Rey.  Two weeks, thirty grand.  Another year of modest living paid for. 

 

The other one was “Fun-Filled Vacation for Two.”  Two dissimilar women win a radio contest and have adventures at a beach resort in Mexico.  It was in contention for actually being filmed, but got edged out by a pilot called “Laker Girls.”  No blame there.  Anyway, another year of life covered.

 

Oh yeah.  To achieve escape velocity after chucking the Herald, I ghosted a book about cancer prevention for a Beverly Hills oncologist named Howard Bierman.  Howard the Doc.  I got to go on rounds and see his badly stricken caseload (he took victims who wanted to fight to the last ditch).  The book said, basically, give up smokes, avoid fried foods.  Wear sunscreen.  Refuse to be born into families with a history of cancer.  And after your parents go, make sure to have them autopsied for a peek into your future.

   

In the interests of being a responsible parent, I shifted my flag to bucolic Petaluma, far from the smoke and horrors of Southern California.  After going through the TV money, I scribbled tidbits for the magazines, mostly Outside, and the late California Magazine.  Travel. Arcane weirdness.  One assignment took me to South America for five weeks to demonstrate the techniques of sub-bargain travel.  I also did a stretch for the county, as a vector control technician with the Marin-Sonoma Mosquito Abatement District. You start off as a journeyman abater and pretty soon rise to being a master.  In many ways, the best job so far.  Outdoor work, loosely supervised, with the results hard to quantify.  Report for the morning meeting, coffee up, and disappear over the horizon in a beige pickup truck.  I did a lot of enjoyable foot patrol in the Bay marshes. Sometimes I found mosquitoes and killed them, although always leaving seed stock for the next year.  But, having been smitten again, I engineered a layoff to take her to Mexico.

  

Somewhere along in here I was editor of a weekly for a week.  A classified in E&P had called for an “editor-pilot” to run the Calistoga Weekly (in the Napa Valley) and chauffeur the publisher in her private plane.  I put out one issue and then got fired after a drunken interlude that involved a visiting reporter from the Chronicle, two local belles we met at the Pine Cone Inn, a female advertising rep, and the Calistoga police.  I never got a chance to fly the airplane.

  

Michael by this time had reached sixteen, and we were having the usual discussions that arise between teenager and parent.    Something about wanting a normal dad.   He decided to shift over to mom. By this time she and her husband owned a film processing lab in San Francisco specializing in fashion and fine art black and white.  Michael went to work there, and the rest....

   

Having habituated myself to a life of leisure, my study upon returning from Mexico was to figure how to collect another six months of unemployment.  To do that, I needed a short-lived job that would lay me off.  I briefly became a temp postman.  I thought, delivering the mail.  How hard could that be?  But I was fired after a few weeks for crashing one of their boxy little trucks into a house.  I had stepped out of the truck to put mail in a mailbox that had fallen over.  The truck popped into reverse, made a J-turn across the street, backed up a driveway and at last slammed into a granny unit, caving in the door. Since I had not made enough to qualify for unemployment, I took another temp job as a parking lot attendant at the Pleasure Faire, in the employee lot, where every Volks bus wore a bumper sticker that said, “Question Authority.” 

 

But I never benefited from any of this, because I wound up with the editorship of the Clearlake Observer, in Lake County.  The office took up half of a decaying warehouse, and the foyer was furnished with seats salvaged from cars.  Clearlake, best known for water pollution and meth, had one advantage:  the owners of its paper cared little what I did, and pretty much left me alone.

   

Six months later an old pal alerted me to a job opening at the Orange County Register.    Regional reporter.  Travel around doing features on stuff outside Orange County.  It seems amusing to me, that during lengthy interview process, in which I spent hours being questioned by a Conga line of editors, no one actually seemed to check....    Anyway, I got hired, and fooled around there for almost four years.  The first few years, I cruised the perimeter, mostly in the Southwest.  Train robbers in the Mojave. Dope growers in Mendocino.  Flying saucers in Roswell.  Butterfly in her tree.  Blah, blah.  I also got to go to Honduras for El Mitch, to Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo for the UN squabble with the Serbs, and to Vietnam for the 25th anniversary of what we call the Fall of Saigon, and they call Victory.

   

But eventually certain fissures began to appear in our relationship.  This is all explained in a funny piece I did for the Orange County Weekly, which you can find by going Google and then Phil Garlington. But to make it short, I was the featured participant in a layoff of one.  Attitude was cited.  After the obligatory six-month vacation, I then took another minor post as editor of the Palo Verde Valley Times in Blythe, which you remember is that blistering pit stop on the I-10 where your car overheated on the way to Phoenix.  The enjoyable thing about parachuting into a small town and taking the reins of the local astonisher is that you immediately become a large frog.  Regardless, nine months later I was fired for insubordination.

   

During this desert period, however, I became a land baron.  I did a story on the tax-default land auction in Imperial County.  One parcel on the list was ten acres with an opening bid of $100.  After a desultory bidding war, I became the owner of the parcel for a total outlay of $325.  When I picked up my deed, the clerk said, “You will never find this.”  But with GPS you can find anything.  Gun enthusiasts from the Register began using the parcel for skeet and plinking.  Then we took up rocketry.  Over time I found out people actually lived in this desolation, and I pitched a book to a small publisher, Loompanics, to be called, “Rancho Costa Nada:  The Dirt-Cheap Desert Homestead.”  They bit, I wrote. Mike came out to shoot the portraits of the toothless denizens.  And here we are.

    

I hope that answers some of your questions.    Time spent wisely, if not profitably.

Some people I know have stuck to their last, but Thank God they lost everything in the down tick. I stayed in cash all along, when not entirely outside the money economy.  See you at the party.

 

 

Copyright 1996 The Times Mirror Company

 Los Angeles Times February 27, 1996, Tuesday, Home Edition

HEADLINE: CALIFORNIA ALBUM;
A GROWER'S SAGA OF ROOTS BEARS FRUIT;
PUBLISHERS WOULDN'T LOOK AT BRUNO BUTI'S NOVEL ABOUT BOOTLEGGING FAMILY, SO HE PUBLISHED IT AND SOLD COPIES AT WINERIES.


BYLINE: By PHIL GARLINGTON
DATELINE: CLOVERDALE, Calif.



 

And now, for the encouragement of wannabe novelists facing the harsh reality of New York publishing, the story of 73-year-old prune grower Bruno Buti. 

 

After suffering a wake-up call heart attack in 1988, Buti (pronounced booty") decided that what he really wanted to do was write a novel. And he had an idea, the escapades of his father and cousin, Italian bootleggers who operated secret stills in the 1920s in Crow Canyon northeast of San Francisco. 

 

Buti wrote the 90,000-word book in longhand, using the hood of his Jeep for a desk, in between stints of pruning his orchard. With "Rumbling Barrels" finally completed, Buti felt that he had a winner. The novel had adventure and drama, and treated a heretofore-neglected segment of U.S. history, Prohibition in the West. 

 Then he came up against the hard reality of the publishing world.

"Nobody would even look at my manuscript," Buti said. "Editors told me it was a waste of time even to submit a query letter. They told me publishers never read the slush pile submissions."

One editor whom Buti managed to reach spelled out the cold truth: "We don’t publish novels," the editor said. "We publish authors." And publishing houses were already flooded with manuscripts from established writers. 

The editor's advice: "Print 100 copies on your own dime for your friends and forget It." 


"But he didn't know Bruno. In September, Buti had 2,500 copies printed at his own expense. By December, he had sold all of them. And now he's selling out a second printing. 

His secret? He sells his hardbound novel of Prohibition antics, for $20 a copy, at area wineries. 

 "I started with a couple of local Italian wineries," Buti said. "There's lots of traffic, and people are drinking wine, having a good time. I got the managers to put the book in the gift shops."



Buti had other inventive marketing ploys. Cloverdale, 60 miles north of San
Francisco, has no bookstore. Buti sells his book at Ace Hardware, where the manager agreed to set up a display along the front aisle. According to store employees, the first two shipments have sold out. 

 Buti also made a deal with a major fruit grower to distribute a new, 
orange-flavored prune. "I give out samples of the prune at shopping malls and push my book at the same time," Buti said.

Although "Rumbling Barrels" is fiction, Buti said, it is based on the real adventures of his bootlegging father and particularly his cousin, who not only operated moonshine stills but hijacked trucks. "They were a tough bunch," Buti
said, "and so were a lot of the crooked federal officers."

 

Buti said that his father was frequently shaken down by revenue agents and that once the 12-year-old Bruno was told to hold a shotgun on two agents while his father made a getaway. Buti said the hooch that his father distilled in remote canyons was an Italian variation of corn moonshine. But it came to be called "Jackass Brandy" because of the mules and donkeys that the bootleggers used to haul sugar and mash to the hidden stills. 



The novel-writing game, which looked so bleak at the beginning, has turned out to be fun, Buti said. "They did everything they could to discourage me, but I'm not some starving artist in a garret. I've got the wherewithal to print my own book. And I figured, if New York can do it, I can do it."



 

 

Gramps Backpacks the UK  Clearlake Observer

I grow old. I will wear my trousers if I remember.  The synapses misfire, the memory miscues.  Bummer.  Happily for me the backpacking never gets old.  A sport for life, amply demonstrated by the number of fellow geezers I meet on Sierra Club outings or find chugging along during my solitary wanderings.  As a young man, as a middle-aged man, how swell to see a spry old duffer hefting his rucksack deep in the mountains. A good omen that says, boy, keep fit like that guy, and you can hit the dusty trail right up until it’s time to catch out for the West. 

Now that sixty summers have put me in the company of the aged, I find another thing.  Not only does the sport not pall, but the backpacking pensioner, however straightened, always has the wherewithal to travel.  The astronomical price of a hotel room?  He smiles. Those pricy restaurant meals?  A shrug.  Being on the retired list usually means plenty of leisure, but often not much ready.  An open calendar but a flat wallet, with short shrift for lodging, meal or gratuity. Not the backpacker.  Always, at any age, he is Mr. Self-Sufficient, room and board on board, and the Song of the Open Road on his lips. 

How about my recent two-month walking tour of the UK (with a side trip to France and Spain).  Typically, it’s the student tyro who takes some months or even a gap year to tour Europe afoot.  Usually, for impecunious youth, this means economy backpack travel with bus pass, and a bunk at the hostel. 

 But then the seasons turn, the former callow traveler establishes himself, makes his pile. When he revisits the Continent as affluent grownup he dines on linen, mesero or garcon at elbow to scoop up the plastic.  The successful or lucky can continue this luxurious mode into dotage.  But some of us improvident elders have unzipped the IRA or the 401(k) and said, “Hmm. Not much kay.” 

I’m one of those on a fixed income.  During the salad years I gushed money, didn’t squirrel away the stash, and now...you get the picture.  But that’s okay.  I just backpacked Europe as a codger on the same kind of lean budget favored by the 18-year-old kiddo.  Probably less.   My rules for budget European travel are simple:  Go off-season, use the bus (instead of the train), and most importantly, no roofs or restaurants. 

Obviously Europe is so damn expensive because of lodging and dining.  Staying in a hotel, snapping a napkin at a cafe, the European sojourner can figure on laying out maybe two, three hundred a day. Even a bunk in the hostel dormitory, $20.  My budget was $30 a day, transport included.  I could do it because every night I pitched my tent in one of the many camping club sites that dot the UK and the Continent.  (An aside here.  Personally, I’d rather tent than sleep in a noisy dorm.  Youth wants to socialize and hook up; I want the zees.)

A couple of months in advance I booked a cheap round-trip flight to Heathrow departing at the beginning of low season, returning two months later.  Forget London.  Too expensive.  I hopped the National Express bus from the airport straight to the quaint cathedral town of Salisbury, pitched my tent at the Camping and Caravanning Club site a mile from the center, spent a day looking around and shaking off the lag, and then set off on foot on the Kennet-Avon canal towpath for the 70 mile walk to Bath.

 September in the UK.  It’s gonna rain. For the month and a half I stayed with the Brits it rained for at least part of every day.  I didn’t find the sun again until I got to southern France.  Not a problem, though, because I’m a Boy Scout.  Prepared.  Before stepping off I’d shopped the Memorial Day sale at REI and got some good lightweight rain gear.  I already had the other backpack items in my 20-pound load:  a three-pound tent, a light synthetic bag, the skinny ground pad, and a change of quick-dry clothes.  No cooking gear or stove, because on European holiday I picnic out of the market.

Before leaving the States, I’d checked out the Brit campsites on the Internet, and planned an itinerary.  Often, I footed and bused from one site to another in a day.  Other times I camped at one site while I investigated the countryside on day walks.  The Brits (and Continentals, too) like to caravan, as they call it, the caravan being a slightly reduced travel trailer. 

So there are hundreds of sites, meaning that at least one will be reasonably handy to anyplace the hiker of rural England might want to look it.  On the first night at the Salisbury campsite I joined the nation-wide Camping and Caravanning Club, one of the better-known clubs which has sites near most cities on the tourist circuit.  Membership conferred a backpacker’s rate of three or four pounds a night (prices fluctuated slightly according to amenities).  I didn’t really need the membership, it turned out, because non-members are welcome, and the rates for those over 60 are just as good. 

Six to eight bucks a night for a patch of lawn (Brits call it a pitch) and the use of the showers and laundry.  Good showers, too, plenty of hot water. And the dryer in the laundry for fluffing up a damp sleeping bag.  Were lots of other backpackers or tent campers at the sites in dank September?  Uhm, no.  So there’s always room. 

 September and October I hiked the Cotswalds, the Lake District, Hadrian’s Wall, Northumbria, and while the weather blustered and wept, I never got cold until I hit Scotland.  Then I had to buy an extra wool sweater at a thrift store. 

For temperate autumnal England, with temps in the 50s, I got by on two pairs of very lightweight quick-dry pants, Capilene long johns and Capilene long-sleeve shirt, a short-sleeve cotton shirt, rain pants and parka, a thin wool sweater, some underwear and socks.  Total weight a couple of pounds.  I’d wash clothes every few days at one of the campsites.

Another reason I got by on $30 a day is that I traveled between hiking venues by bus.  The intercity bus company, National Express, has one heck of a deal for seniors.  Over sixty, half price.  Apparently you just need to look old, because no agent ever asked me to show ID.  I mostly skipped the train, which is expensive even with Eurail.  The bus takes longer, but it’s comfortable enough, and in any case I wasn’t covering vast distances.  The longest ride took me from Dover to Montpelier in France, ten hours, for $50 round-trip.

I ate out of the market.  I looked for produce, breads and cheeses.  Every grocery store and newsvendor sells prepared sandwiches.   The cheapest was the egg and celery on wheat for the equivalent of a buck and a half, with a steep discount if you bought it on the expiration date.  For lunch then a sandwich, apple, banana, and a handful of peanuts. Breakfast, milk or yogurt, a bun, and peanuts. It helps that I don’t drink coffee.  At night in the tent, cheese, crackers, an avocado or tomato, and sometimes a bottle of Spanish or French table red, very reasonable.  The English also make a wine, called a perry, in Bristol, of all places.  Fizzy, but not as bad as you’d think.

Of course, part of the fun of England is the pub.  I had to practice discipline, because a pint, even in a rural neighborhood joint, is going to be five or six bucks.  Once, after a ten-mile hike with a hiking club from Haltwhistle in Northumbria, I tagged along afterwards to the Bear and Bait (or whatever), to listen to fervent, arcane talk about fox hunting.  But we all put down four expensive pints each.  Sometimes a pub will feature a pensioner’s pint (that is, a local brew) for around $3.  But, in my opinion, the stuff tastes like mucilage.  What helped me with pub discipline was coming from California, where smoking isn’t allowed in bars.  The Brit pub is layered with blue.  And what with the shocking cost of tailor-mades, a lot of students and pensioners are rolling their own rank weed these days.  For the effete non-smoking Californian, there’s little long-term allure to the smoke-filled parlor.

I didn’t knock myself out on the trail.  Ten, twelve miles a day, tops.  And much of the English topography, provided the weather isn’t too brisk, makes for relatively easy walking (if the Pacific Crest Trail is your comparison).  Lots of easy pleasant days, ambling along a foot path in the mist, through some laird’s gracious green sheep fold (it’s legal), the fluffy stoic ungulates drifting all about,  followed at day’s end by a hot shower and maybe the pensioner’s pint.  Even so, a lot of friends said to me: “Phil, this sounds awful.  It rained constantly and you were eating cold food inside a minuscule tent in a downpour.  No three hots.  No cot.  You lived like a tramp. What fun is this?”

So stay home. My choice was and is, travel the world cheap or don’t go.  Why shouldn’t I go?  I’m still in good fettle, thanks to my medical plan’s parts A and B, my right foot and left foot.  It’s not going to get any better.  And I have fun on the frugal road.

Here I am, strolling along the Kennet-Avon Canal towpath.  It’s “soft,” meaning a little hazy, a little drippy, but mid-50s, not cold.   I’m headed for the caravan site at Sells Green, but stopping now and then to admire the locks, a marvel of 18th Century engineering, and still in top shape, since every day thousands of narrow boats and other skinny barges float up and down, literally, inside these boxes.  On one stretch 29 locks within one mile, one about every 100 feet.  Most of the motor-powered narrow boats are hired by tourists, who get the experience of pushing on huge handles to open the heavy lock doors for a fill or flush.  These gaily-painted craft are very slow; it’s one long no wake zone; I’m making better time on foot.  But what’s the hurry? 

There are many beckoning pubs along the path, ready to draw a pint for the voyager.  And at every lock the sedate, decorous black-headed swans, their long interrogative necks wondering if perhaps the passerby can spare a bit of crumpet.  And the surrounding landscape.  Stone farm houses with chimney pots, pastures tittled with fleecy balls.  Along the canal bank very serious fishermen.  British Waterways rents sections of the canal to fishing clubs. The unaffiliated angler isn’t wanted. Only members may pursue the loach and coarse (I have no idea). 

As I walked around England I worked it out so that camping sites would put me in striking distance of famous sights. Maybe you know Bath, but I’d never been.  The Circus, the Pump Room, the Roman dip.  Because of my constraints, I never went to any museum or other attraction that required an admission fee.  Besides, this was a walking tour.  I’d made past visits to London (in the dead of winter to take advantage of bargain air fare) and spent the two weeks doing nothing but museums. Now I beheld from the outside.  And this kept me busy.  In Bath, Oxford, Canterbury, York, I took guided tours conducted for free by the local historical societies.

I’m in cute Kendel in the Lake District, a former wool town built of gray stone.  A couple of pubs actually named“Ye Olde...,” the best being “Ye Olde Fleece Inn.”  The stately homes all have brass plaques naming the “House.”  Bleak House, Bleaker House, Bleakest House. 

I took a walk along river Kent to the ruins of yet another old castle up on top of the hill.  Many of these piles are just there, without fence or fee, open for casual gratis inspection.  This one had been built in 1400 or thereabouts more as a gated community than as a military fortress.  Not meant to withstand a siege, but to deter the unwanted posse.  I found out from a sign that the noble master and mistress usually had bedchambers in one of the tubular turrets.  Wooden sheds in the keep housed the oxen and the help.  You don’t have to pay to see a castle.  I checked out maybe a dozen of ‘em for free while wandering around. 

My only splurge in England was the teashop.  A spot of tea for 80 pence.  Read the papers.   Some big news of the time concerned a gaggle of fanatic foxhunters who had invaded Parliament to protest a proposed ban on tearing small brush-tailed mammals to shreds with dogs.  Many tsk-tsk-ing editorials in the press, about the poor security.  Could have been Osama. As for the issue, I sympathize with Reynard, but personally I don’t think the Labour MPs ought to muck around too much with immemorial custom.  Much of my tour followed public footpaths that crossed private property, often right under the window of the laird’s manor.  Public right-of-way. 

No American rancher would tolerate this kind of trespass for one little minute, and would be out to see you pronto with his rifle.  But these little arrowed signs are everywhere: “Public footpath“ pointing straight into some guy’s field.  Being able to legally trespass means that most of the rural countryside is open to the pedestrian.

I’ve just stepped off the bus at Haltwhistle, the geographic center of Britain, and the gateway to the best-preserved example of Hadrian’s major public works project.  It turned out the Wall was not really built to hold back the brigand McGregor and Campbell.  Rather it was a physical statement of the Emperor’s political decision to halt Roman expansion and consolidate.  So far, no more.  Plus, it gave restive Legionaries a focus for the eight-year hitch.  Despite Conrad, England wasn’t considered a hardship post for the Roman soldier.  Apparently a milder climate then.  Grapes flourished, or at least grew, ameliorating barracks life. 

Most of the inhabitants of Northumbria, then as now, were peaceful farmers.  Civilian towns with all the amenities sprang up around the milepost forts.  Romans built the wall, but for three hundred years afterward the garrison troops were mostly auxiliaries sharked up from the skirts of the empire.  Even a battalion of Syrian archers.

For walking, Northumbria was my fav.  I admit, the Cotswolds, very picturesque.  Lake District, postcard smart, but touristy.  And the actual lakes not much of a show without the literary allusions.  But Northumbria.  Think of Theodore Roosevelt National Park with castles and a latticework of stone fences.  Sweeping desolation and not many folks.  The first day at the Wall I hiked from the campsite the five miles to Chester’s House, an old fort. Roman arches peeped up from the bottom of borrow pits in the sheep pasture.  Soon a raw and biting wind arrived, punctuated with gusts of rain. I followed the Wall another five miles over a dozen stiles to the Roman military museum at the imaginatively named Walltown. 

On the way I met half a dozen or so other walkers in foulies making the best of it, eating soggy sandwiches in the lee of a rock fence, and tipping the Thermos or flask.  In the free part of the museum I learned that the Legionnaire carried two pila, one light, one heavy.  He threw the lighter first.  With its barbed tip it snagged and fouled the opponent’s shield.  The head of the heavier spear was meant to break on impact, so the spear couldn’t be picked up and returned with interest. One could spend some time on the Wall.  Back in Haltwhistle I’d spied a notice for a group walk out to Housested, the best preserved of the Roman forts. 

We know that hobby walkers are notoriously democratic, seldom class conscious or snobby.  They’d gladly welcome a stranger.  The appointed day came with sprinkles and a piping breeze.  Even so, a dozen hard-core from the local hiking club turned out in the parking lot at Quality Faire (perhaps not the happiest name for a grocery), with two of the men ostentatiously dressed in shorts, determined to wring the last drop from the rind of the English so-called summer. 

The hike leader is known by the map encased in a sheer plastic folder slung round his neck.  He led us five miles out to a Roman fort that was in pretty darn good shape, considering the intervening 2,000 years.  The Romans quarried, squared, and dressed all the facing stone in the wall and fortifications.  As opposed to the lackadaisical natives who just piled up what they found for their fences and hovels. After the Romans decamped, later builders pinched freely from the wall, and in local Norman castles the visitor can see square Roman stones mixed in with the mélange.

 The walkers were kind enough to tutor an outlander.  I learned about old kilns that burned lime and coal to make a soil additive, about wind sills, about a lone sycamore on an otherwise treeless hill where parts of Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood were filmed.  From Housestead we walked along the top of the wall, and then through pastures and ruined farmsteads, nine miles back to Gherkin-on-the-Water (Haltwhistle).  As mentioned, the post-pedestrian stop at the sign of the Black Bear could not be refused

As I wandered along the byways, I noted that most English castles, particularly those open to the pubic for an admission fee, have ghosts and ghost stories.  Bellister Castle in Northumbria no exception. The story:  A wandering minstrel visited the feudal laird of Bellister, oh, a thousand years ago, and got a friendly welcome, and a free meal for his lyre and lays.  But on to midnight, after supping much wine, the baron conceived the delusion that the harmless minstrel actually was an enemy spy in the household of one of the other border chiefs.  When the minstrel retired to his straw in the courtyard, the baron loosed the dogs, which tore the innocent strummer to pieces.  Now the ghost of the Gray Minstrel haunts the surrounding forest.

One night, returning to camp from town, I took the path through the woods adjoining the castle, just to see if...  Well, I’m not a believer, of course; too skeptical.  But the perfect time for a sighting.  Gloomy dusk, swaths of fog weaving through the trees, spectral branches dripping, skeletal ferns thrashing in the wind.  I even sat on a mossy stone bench to eat my egg salad sandwich while I listened for tinkling bells or the whistle of a flute.  I looked over my shoulder for a glimpse of motley tights or the toss of a tasseled cap. 

 Is it me?  Nothing.  The pearly jongleur didn’t appear.  I gave it up, but I could have tried my luck right up the road at Featherstone Castle.  The story there, the daughter of the castle lord had plighted her troth with a handsome knight.  Alas, for fiduciary reasons her dad married her off instead to another landed gent.  Made incautious by passion, the knight hired some local varlets to abduct his love on her wedding day.  These pickup hirelings were overzealous, and in the ensuing brawl the varlets slaughtered the entire wedding party, including the bride.  The knight killed himself.  The entire cast of ghosts supposedly comes haunting back, but the hitch is, only on one night, the anniversary of the wedding.  Featherstone Castle isn’t open to the public.  If it were, the ghosts might come back more often.

Blah, blah.  Anyhow, I managed to keep amused during my UK walkabout despite my superannuated status and the lint in my wallet.   Returning from Europe to the States I then drifted south for a month of beachcombing around the little resort ville of San Felipe in Baja; next excursion is to Big Bend National Park, Texas.  Point here, it’s pretty easy for the penurious codger backpacker to keep things interesting.  As long as he can still walk, he can mosey the world, light out for new territory.  You could try it yourself. 

 .

                                            ADVENTURE TRAVEL

 

In the Bowery, on the way to Permanent Happy Hour at the Blow Hole. Next to the bar, an alley, where young touts offered drugs or sex opportunities. A sallow-faced teen emerged from the shadows. "Want to buy a trip to the moon? He had a ticket for a seat on Space Zepp. At steep discount. It would be Musk's third try. Space X and Space Y had come apart on launch, sending two boatloads of passengers skyward, but not to the moon. The terms. One large down in dollars. Fifteen grand euros upon arrival at the airport. A good price. I swiped my phone.

 

At Kennedy at the Space Gate some Musk thugs gave me the fisheye. But when I swiped my phone, the gate opened into a waiting room­ already filled with passengers. I knew a few. Easy Kinda I knew from the Zambezi Falls kayak challenge. She looked good, considering what had happened. Demon Ruff was an old acquaintance. He’d been on the parachute jump into the Maui Malaigna volcano, and on the helicopter-assisted Arctic dogsled safari. The other twenty or so passengers I didn't know but they looked the type.

 

The pilot had been in the Musk space academy from the beginning. He seemed shaky. But he was just along for the ride. Everything was automated. We loaded and the launch went smoothly. On X and Y there had been an overpressure on combustion, 0-rings had failed causing rapid decompression and an explosion. All good this time. The ticket included meals, two orbits of the moon, a descent to the surface on the Lander, and a ride on an all-terrain vehicle already in place. Either because of space sickness caused by zero gravity, or because of something wrong with the tubes of food paste, most of the passengers soon became violently ill. Also diarrhea. The valve system for the heads was complicated and nobody could figure out the instructions. Consequently air pressure on the vault caused the contents to blow out of a sink in the galley. The compartment was filled with a fine floating mist of vomit and feces, making it difficult to see out of the ports, despite our rubbing the panes as hard as we could.

 

We drew cards to see who could go on the first trip to the surface, since the Lander only had room for six. Easy Kinda won a slot, and smirked at she climbed into the Lander. On the surface she and some young dude were the first to transfer through an airlock into the ATV. That vehicle's program apparently had become corrupted and wasn't responding. The pilot tried the override, but once started the ATV wouldn't turn around or stop. The Lander had been programmed to return to the ship after two hours because of limited oxygen supply. The pilot, who had started yelling, said he couldn't wait and returned the Lander to the ship. At last look the ATV was headed straight for Mons Galileo.

 

Another glitch: The airlock seal malfunctioned and the Lander passengers couldn't get back aboard, although they were now hooked up for supplemental oxygen. The pilot decided to abort the mission and return to Earth. Mr. Dekes and few others complained but we were unable to see out the ports anyway. During our orbit around the Dark Side we couldn’t see the surface because of the sticky paste on the ports. We did hear some Pink Floyd, and Mr. Dekes' phone had the video shot by Armstrong on Apollo Seven.

 

On the return. The airlock seal on the Lander was leaking and we lost communication with the four passengers inside, one of them being Demon Ruff. As we entered Earth's atmosphere the ship's heat tiles started to peel away. The temperature inside the compartment rose to 50 degrees Celsius, and the pilot began to have periodic fits of shrieking. We were supposed to land at MuskPort at Kennedy but with the heat shield peeling off the pilot overrode the program and rotated the capsule to brake the descent. This, for some reason, caused the rocket to begin tumbling while he dialed in a splash down in the Aral Sea. We hit hard, and the half a dozen passengers knocked unconscious weren't able to exit.

 

By this time the pilot was shrieking continuously. He blew both hatches, one of which was underwater, and the ship began to settle. I was third in line after the pilot and was halfway out the hatch when Dekes, who was behind me, tried to crowd through. He had my leg wedged. The water was freezing and steam was rising from the superheated capsule and I could hear a commotion below as the remaining passengers tried to pull Dekes out of the hatch. The ship settled, flooding the compartment. Only my head and shoulders were above the water. Apparently we had landed on some kind of ice floe and the ship was sitting in a big puddle. The pilot had managed to get off an SOS and in a few hours a Russian icebreaker, the Prince Tolkien, picked up the survivors. The sailors treated us for hypothermia and frostbite. A helicopter aboard airlifted us to Murmansk Station where we were quarantined for a month because of the pandemic Celestial virus. An abundance of caution, since it wasn't likely we had caught anything on the moon.

 

Back in New York I spent a few weeks at Bellevue, where a surgeon amputated the toes on my right foot. One of my visitors was Harry the Cattle, who had been along on the dive for the Roman amphorae alongside an ancient shipwreck off Cyprus. Harry said ht was putting together some tickets for a tour of the Congolese slave castle ruins at Tameka. Usually the ruins, a UN Heritage Site, were off limits to tourists but a runaway outbreak of Ebola had cleared the army from all their posts and checkpoints. Harry said he knew people that could get us past the Islamic insurgents and the Children of God. I swiped my phone.

 

 

The Rightful Extermination of Men

 

The police had been called to Brenda’s party and the men hadn’t even arrived yet. The police had to come every year; it had become traditional; and the young officers thoroughly enjoyed the chance to ride up to the twentieth floor on the Mark’s private elevator and to marvel at the exquisite furnishings in Brenda’s suite. Everything was so perfect.

 

Earlier, as the guests arrived, each had chosen a necklace; mauve for those in committed relationships; turquoise for those who were available. Of course that had started it all, when Marsha picked turquoise when her companion Edith had assumed something else. Edith, throwing her mauve necklace to the marbled floor, had not been able to contain her disappointment, turning over a crystal punch bowl, following that with inconsolable wailing with many recriminations directed at Martha thrown in. Since she wouldn’t listen to Linda or Marcy or any of her other friends, Brenda thought it best (and she knew it would be fun for her guests) to make the evening’s first 911 call.

 

Of course the officers were darling and professional. Brenda knew Chief Gilda very well (they served on several committees), and Gilda would never dispatch anyone who wasn’t right. Officers Mary and Susan wore the tight-fitting blue jackets that the department had ordered the previous year, along with the dashing peaked caps with the silver inscriptions: “National Care” They were both eighteen, willowy nymphs with the dreamy, sweet-mouthed countenance perfect for police work.

 

Officer Mary helped Edith down from a chair and hugged her; and Officer Susan hugged her too, and said she knew exactly how she felt, because she had been in just that kind of relationship in July in which she had thought...

 

Officers Suzy and Mary took Edith into the corner for a session; they sat on the floor cross-legged and cried softly and nodded their heads and did work to open the heart and give agency. What Edith really needed was to own her life, they told her. They did breathing together, and Edith began to calm down.   Brenda was very pleased.   The officers obviously were well trained, and they all had Gilda to thank for that

Brenda had known all along that Martha had no intention of staying with Edith, and it had worked out as she had hoped, with the public break right here. Everybody would remember. “They broke up at Brenda’s party.” . Brenda admitted that sometimes her Independence Day parties had been a little dull, and, the police didn’t come until after Amos brought the collection of men that always stirred up the ladies, that late-evening arrival of unneutered men, particularly after the infusion drips she had arranged (with permission from the pharmacological section at the ministry).

 

Although her annual party memorialized the Anniversary of Women’s Independence it also served as a reminder of the untidy (and unseemly) passions that had once held so many in thrall. It was good that young women should know first hand, should feel that pernicious tremble of dread, that fear that the foremothers had fought so valiantly to protect them from. As always it had been a huge burden for Brenda to make the selections. But she knew she could trust Amos.

 

The doorbell rang and Chrissie arrived. She looked gorgeous. Nineteen years old and just over her final intensives at the university, and now ready to bloom in the world. So lovely, in her satin shift, the straps negligently dropping over her shoulder. So slim, her skin so creamy. Brenda definitely planned to take her under her wing. What to do about Belinda could be a problem, so controlling sometimes, but Brenda would manage. She always did.

 

“So glad you could come,” she said to Chrissie, touching her on the arm.

 

—Palo Verde Valley Times

 

I ride my bicycle to the coffee shop every morning.

 

Coffee shop isn’t right. It’s the Green Zone Café, which has an Early Bird Special, offered between 6 and 7 a.m. It’s a barista-drizzled cup of Columbian Joe, sustainably raised, organically grown by happy campesinos, on sale for the price of a buck. The customer brings his own reusable cup, over which the barista places a metal filter filled with freshly ground beans out of the sack.

 

So I’m sitting at a table outside in the wan sunshine when a black Lexus pulls into the space directly in front of me. A tinted barely legal windshield, but I can indistinctly make out the driver, a woman, on her cell phone, sitting and talking, and letting the car idle. A little bit of a morning breeze, and I’m assuming she doesn’t want to turn off the car’s heater while she’s talking. But it’s annoying, since I’m getting a whiff of exhaust fumes.

 

I’m prejudging and stereotyping this woman. Lexus. Tinted windows. I’m thinking privileged, cosseted princess of Tech, trailing clouds of entitlement. But I notice something that’s not in sync. On the front bumper, a bumper sticker: “Too Proud to be an American,” printed over an American flag design. “Too Proud to be an American” is funny, but one would expect to see that sentiment on a different vehicle, one that also sported suggestions to “Question Authority,” and to “Resist!” with the clenched fist.

 

Here’s something else. I’m sitting at a slight angle to the Lexus, and I can see another sticker over the gas gap.   Can’t quite read it, but I have a pair of long-distance driving glasses in my pack. “Your Son’s Blood Goes Here” it says, over the gas cap.

 

The car door opens, and emerges a young and beautiful Asian woman, dressed in suede boots, flowing skirt, and silk blouse imprinted with a design something like the tattoos on the barista’s arm. She heads straight for the café, still talking earnestly into the phone.

 

My thinking is this: “Too Proud to be an American” is an inside joke. A friend who lives in Berkeley found the sticker at the Peoples’ Park collective, and thought it would be amusing to put it on her friend’s Lexus. A Lexus IS too proud. But the other bumper sticker isn’t friendly. A San Francisco anarchist slapped it on her car while she participated in a fun run in Golden Gate Park. He was attaching the stickers with super glue to all the high-end cars at the event, to remind possible plutocrats of the collateral costs of gasoline.

 

Lexus. Asian woman. Could be racial tones as well. I’m in no position to stereotype. My own vehicle smacks of the Axis too. An ancient Schwinn I got at Repurposeopolis for five bucks.

 

--Clear Lake Observer

 

Divine Wind

 

Like everyone in spiritual crisis, I fasted, wept and prayed, paced the room, sighed with forced breath, and at last opted for the vision quest to find the answers on a desert mountaintop. Upon arrival I dropped a Purple Owsley that I’d been carrying around in my wallet since the Summer of Love.

 

After awhile a whirlwind swirled out of a flaming bush and God appeared. The sky burned crimson and then turned into a shimmering translucent platinum aurora surrounding the Celestial presence. I was thinking of God along the lines of a stern and jealous patriarch or genocidal psychopath who kept busy smiting the Samsonites. But in appearance God looked a lot like Betty Crocker. Kind of a prim and well put together matron with a youthful sunny disposition that radiated beneficence. The pristine desert air had become infused with the odor of freshly baked cookies

 

God’s smile took the tension right out of my neck. “’In his own image?” God said. “It’s a metaphor. Like the many mansions. I save the robe and beard for the real sinners. For you, the usual unreliable, faithless lying hypocrite, I’m a female homemaker. That’s the default position for you people.”

 

‘I’ve been troubled lately,” I said.

 

“Mary Jane Cunningham,” God said. “Boy do I get bored with the middle-aged adultery fantasy.”

 

“I’ve become possessed. All I’m asking is to take complete control of her.”

 

“Your neighbor’s wife. On my list that’s a non-covetable item. Besides, she’s not exactly a looker. And I could tell you a thing or two about that lady. But okay. Two hours.”

 

“Two hours….that’s not a not a lot of time.”

 

“Two hours with you will save her marriage. Anything else, as If I didn’t know?”

 

“Well, it’s April 14th…”

 

“Not a sparrow falls….or a goose or a pigeon either, not only here, but in the entire bird land of the cosmos…. I know what day it is.   Did you think about itemizing your commodities loses by backdating the puts?”

 

“No! Jesus Christ. Excuse me.   But that’s brilliant…. that’s perfect. Why didn’t I think of that?   Say, while you’re here, what do you think about BlackRock ‘s emerging market EFT that tracks the South Asian investable market index…”

 

“I am a tolerant and forgiving God that shows a lot of compassion for mortal failings. But don’t push your luck.”

 

 

 

Cassandra again, 2015  I told you this would happen

 

I’m thankful I didn’t become a germaphobe until late in life. As a child I was oblivious to germ theory. Oh, my mom would say, “Don’t eat food that’s been on the ground for more than five seconds,” but generally I had no guidance about microscopic pathogens. Thus, bombarded and challenged by all kinds of tiny intruders to the alimentary and respiratory channels, my immune system, after throwing off countless colds and fluxes, became robust.

 

Now, my attitude is different. I worry about being around sick people. I don’t work, but if I did I would consider sick co-workers as pariahs who should be herded into a far corner of the parking lot with the smokers. At our wonderful local library I pick up and move if a cougher or hacker is in the vicinity. Usually the perp is a kid. Of course contagion is going to wrap the student cohort like a blanket; they all live huddled together in tiny apartments sharing joints and forgetting to put the pizza away overnight.

 

Since I go car-less (it’s for you!), I ride the bus, and I can testify that he trouble with public transit is the public. On every ride at least one passenger has active TB or Ebola.   Speaking of the latter, in tightly regimented authoritarian countries such as China, the overtly sick are refused entry onto buses and trains, particularly if some new form of Celestial flu is sweeping their nation. Also the thoughtful and polite Japanese wear facemasks on their commute to control epidemics. In Cuba, if a citizen visits a neighborhood clinic for some cough syrup, and his sputum shows a trace of blood, a policeman escorts him to the hospital. Here in the States, because of the usual perversity and individualism, a person with a wet cough and a temperature of 102 can crawl into his cubicle and infect the whole office.

 

The solutions are obvious. Some can be legislated, such as instituting a federal policy of paid sick days. The main practical reform falls to the employer, or authority over a public space. The office overlords should make it clear that the sick are not welcome. The zealous or compulsive workaholic can provide his mite from the seclusion of his home. In some enlightened airports in faraway lands portable thermometers at the gate flag the fever-ridden before they board a plane. The same might work at the factory gate or at the elevator bank of the tower lobby.

 

At the VA, I notice, signs requests that hacking veterans don the provided facemask. This isn’t enforced, and nobody does it.   This overall cavalier stance toward contagious microbes is about to change. The overuse of antibiotics, the criminal harvesting of bush food, inevitably will lead to the emergence of superbugs that will rampage through the unprotected population like the Spanish Flu of World War I. At least now the scientific understanding of germs will point to prophylactic measures. If heeded, which isn’t likely

 

 

Invitation to a Beheading

 

Sure, I’ve beheaded people. Where I grew up, in Arcady, the willingness to chop off a head meant something: It meant you were one of the adults at the Roundtable, like good old Gawain. Remember him and the Green Knight? People see the ability to effect a decent decapitation as a sign you’d been around the block, so to speak. You aren’t afraid to get your feet wet. So you’re always welcome in the mead hall.

 

Luckily for me, I learned from a master. My grandfather worked the night shift in the dungeon, and handled the odd execution when KidSmack had the day off. My grandfather always called it the snickersnack. “I snickersnacked him,” he’d say. I saw his work one day at one of the tournaments, when some page, full of ale, got boisterous with the ladies. Granddad’s vorpal blade whirled out of nowhere, and snickersnack, the page’s head bounced down the bleachers like it had fallen out of an orange girl’s basket. The severed neck gushed like a strawberry fountain. Everybody clapped grandpa on the back and told him he’d done a top job.

 

Later, when I was sixteen, my grandfather took me down to the practice yard and showed me the mechanics.   Assume the Weaver stance, the left foot forward, the body coiled like a steel spring, eyes focused on the watermelon. Cock the vorpal behind the right ear. Then. Snickersnack! Whoosh. It became part of who I was, part of my identity.

 

I remember my first beheading. A stable boy ridiculed me in front of some girls. The girls started giggling when the kid put my name into a lewd limerick. Then he made fun of my shoes. Frankly, I had never liked the kid. So I cut his head off. Ever since then, whenever I’ve been in a situation in which people kid me, or are rude, or ignore my opinions, I think about giving them a taste of the vorpal.   I’ve thought about it for most of my teachers, a lot of store clerks and bartenders, and of course my wife

 

The next person I beheaded was a neighbor whose ridiculous dog kept pooping on my lawn. I’d mentioned it to him; he promised to curb his mutt. But it kept happening. Snickersnack. Now that I’m older I don’t do that anymore.

 

But here’s the take-away. Beheading people has become an indelible item in memory inventory as an unequivocal permanent possibility that I might revisit under the right circumstances.   Hey, I’m a guy who could lop your head off. You say I need therapy, but it is just a fact of life that the world sucks, and we have to make important calibrations about what’s serious. As Auden says, “every mortal has to act out his inner dramas as if they actually meant something.”

 

 

 

 

The Comanche multi-tool   Palo Verde Valley Times

 

At the Lumbee Native American Museum inside the Convergence Casino, Imperial County

 

I've always had an interest in life on the Plains in 19th Century America, and the nomadic life of the Kiowa Comanche and Sioux. At the museum I took a close look at the Hunting Knife with Beaded Sheath, a steel bowie knife with abalone shell haft and the sheath made of tanned rawhide with glass beadwork. This object is an example of melding native craft with manufactured trade items.

 

Previously to the arrival of Europeans, the native tribes used obsidian to make their cutting tools and scrappers. But white traders leading mule trains packed with goods for barter changed the Indian economy overnight. And one of the most coveted of trade goods was the steel knife. A knife was indispensable for the roving horsemen of the plains, put in use a dozen times a day for mundane chores around the camp, and of course the tool doubled as a defensive weapon or even as an offensive one in a stealthy attack.

 

One of the common items in a trader's pack during the period from 1830 to 1850 was commonly called the Cherokee bowie Knife, although it only had a faint resemblance to the Jim Bowie version. Generally, the trade knife was little more than a butcher knife with a nine to 12-inch blade. One of the earliest of these knives produced for the Indian fur trade, very similar to the one in the collection, typically had a nine-inch blade with riveted wood slab grips.

 

These knives were produced by the thousands at the Gravely and Weeks foundry in Sheffield England. A picture of the knife makes a famous appearance stuck in the belt of the powerful Cherokee war chief Tahchee, in the 1833 oil portrait by Chouteau.

Both men and women native Americans carried a knife in a sheath attached to the belt, but it was the women of the tribe who produced the intricate and artistic beaded sheaths that were de rigor for the well outfitted tribal nomad who usually spent a part of every day butchering animals for he iron cooking pot.

 

In the early days of the 19th century trade, knifes were in short supply since only the most intrepid traders ventured into the hunting grounds. But by the 1840s trading posts had been established along the major rivers, and soon nearly every adult Indian had traded either furs or worthless (to them) bits of yellow pebble for a hunting knife. The trade knives came with wooden grips (the more valuable ones had rosewood grips) but the Indian zest for decoration soon transformed the dull plain slab grips (held together with two rivets) into individualistic creations with shell or bone inlay, or the tightly wrapped with rawhide. Many of the decorated sheaths also featured tassels of horsehair (and sometimes-human hair) as well as an attached braided cord so that the knives alternatively could dangle from the neck.

 

Although often described as "Bowie knives, the trade item lacked the cross guards that are standard in the depiction of Jim Bowie's weapon at the Sandbar Fight. The trade knives were described by traders simply as "butcher knives," “hunting knives,” or "Spanish knives.” It was straight backed, with no clip point, and a simple "slab' riveted wooden handle. That's pretty much the knife in the museum collection.

 

Although these trade knives were mostly stamped out in factories in England, many of them were marked with the names of American cities as a way to further the myth of the knives being an American product. Knives meant for white Americans often came with inscribed mottos, such as "Death to Abolition" or "Death to Traitors." But the trading post knives were plain and utilitarian, since the traders understood that their native customers would quickly customize the product with their own artwork.

 

As for service, historians say that examples of historical cutlery taken from Indian middens reveal workmanship of average quality.’” They were not Damascus-grade steel, but they seem to be servable tools appropriate for a working butcher shop or kitchen," says Plains historian Alden Spafford, of the University of New Mexico’s archeology department. Spafford says many of the historical knives in private collections date to the 1840s and have the usual plain "coffin head" grips. The Indians then customized the invaluable tool in countless ways so that each knife and sheath became an artistic expression created by the owner, or at least by the owner's wife or daughter.

 

--Palo Verde Valley Times

 

 

Know Your Place

 

I’d been invited to a combination birthday and Halloween party for one of my fifth grade classmates, Susan Thatcher, at her home near the Country Club. The invitation had been a surprise. I wasn’t in her circle of superior children. Susan was one of the premier mean girls at Penal Elementary (Go Weasels!) and by far the cutest and most intimidating. I told my mom I would need a costume beyond anything that could be fabricated out of the household grab bag. I don’t know where my mom found it, but she brought home a child’s kangaroo suit that zipped up the back, complete with a long curvy tail and a pull-on headpiece with floppy ears.

 

I knew this would be a hit, and my confidence soared, although something had been going around at school, and on the day of the party I felt a little woozy. But I climbed into the voluminous wool costume, took from my mom the nicely wrapped present (Cheerleader Barbie), and got in the car. The Thatcher family resided a few miles away, in a pleasant enclave of stately homes and large lawns. I debarked, rang the bell, was welcomed by a statuesque matron, and herded straight to the punchbowl, where I spied the only other kid at the party with whom I had ever had a conversation lasting longer than 10 seconds.

 

“Great costume,” he said. “A rabbit?”

 

“Kangaroo.”

 

“It looks more like a rat.”

 

Whether I was rodent or marsupial, I was feeling warmish crowded inside the animal’s skin, and quickly slurped down a couple of cups of punch. I also downed a piece of carrot cake and some deviled eggs.

 

Susan came over and treated me to a peal of her special laughter, was so glad to see me, and disappeared. Nobody else seemed glad to see me, and my one acquaintance kept saying, “He’s supposed to be Mickey Mouse,” with a smile that wasn’t contagious.

 

After awhile I needed to take a pee, found the bathroom, shut the door, and realized I couldn’t unzip the costume. By twisting grotesquely I cold reach around to the zipper but it seemed to be stuck. And now the urgency was mounting to the bursting point. After a minute or two of frantic struggle, with glimpses of myself writhing in the mirror, I had no choice but to pee down the side of the right leg into the kangaroo’s foot.

 

Taking a few experimental steps, I felt some sloshing, and looking down I saw I was leaving damp footprints on the tile.   I’m thinking, “I better call my mom.” Meanwhile outside, someone was impatiently knocking. I opened the door and slipped by a trio of Susan’s girlfriends. “A kangaroo,” one of them said, “I should have known. Why is the floor wet?”

 

Seeking out the hostess, I explained I was unwell, and would she please put in a call. She steered me into the kitchen and pointed to a chair. “Wait right there. My husband is upstairs. He’s a doctor.”

 

I really was sick. I had a headache and a sore throat. And now my bowels began to churn. Probably the deviled eggs and carrot cake. I knew I couldn’t hold out, and I didn’t. Because of the costume’s heavy wool material, I had on only my underwear, and that wasn’t enough to staunch the outburst.

 

An important looking man in a tweed coat with leather elbow patches arrived, and his medical expertise became immediately evident. “Intestinal flu,” he said, “It’s been going around. Susan! Susan. Bring me my bag. I’m going to take this young sprout’s temperature. Susan is my best nurse. Open the bag, honey, and find the thermometer. Gray case. That’s it.”

 

Susan’s dad had me open my mouth, and peered inside by the light of a little pen he had. “Oh my oh my oh my,” he said.   “Susan, come here a minute and take a quick look at this. I was telling you about thrush. See the white spots. A little bit of an overbite, too, and some dental caries. Hmm. Did you have an accident, son? Step back, a little honey, he’s contagious. I think we should get you out of that rig, buster. Is the zipper broken? Wait. I got it. Oh my. Susan, would you tell your friends to go back into the living room, please.”

 

Dr. Thatcher said he would take me out on the back porch while we waited for my mom. But before that happened I vomited into a cake bowl that the good doctor held for me. Mrs. Thatcher put the kangaroo suit into a large paper bag, and after my mother arrived I toted the bag down the driveway in my soiled underwear while the birthday guests crowded around the front window to watch my departure. I guess that was kind of my low point in fifth grade.

 

(Of course, none of this happened. I borrowed the kangaroo suit idea from J. P. Dunleavy’s “The Ginger Man.”)

 

 

 

 

 

“Have your paper and pencil handy…”

 

You ask, the strongest recollection of the effect of media on my childhood? It came upon me when I was six-years-old and I realized the connection between commercial radio and the US Postal Service.

 

Quaker Oats sponsored a radio program called “Sgt. Preston of the Yukon.” I wasn’t clear where exactly the Yukon might be, but it had snow and ice, sled dogs, rough trails, and desperate characters whose depredations could only be thwarted by the Royal Mounted Police. I was a devotee of radio drama, my favorites being the Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, Superman, the Green Hornet, and the Shadow. I showed an early preference for vigilante justice, but Sgt. Preston was an exception, a sworn lawman wearing a red coat, highly competent in challenging environments, but who couldn‘t rely on supernatural powers acquired in the mysterious Far East, or on the planet Krypton.

 

One day the announcer during the commercial interruption to Sgt Preston’s latest adventure made an amazing offer. If I got my mom to buy a package of Quaker Oats, I would find inside a deed to “one square inch” of the Yukon, the snowy venue of my hero. I would own it! My own piece of the Yukon.

 

Nobody at my house ate oatmeal; we all had cold cereal for breakfast. But at my instigation, she bought a package….and it was true. I was a land baron.   When I happened to remember this long-forgotten incident, I did a bit of research.

It was in 1952 that a Madison Ave. copywriter came up with the idea of putting a land deed in every box of Quaker cereal. The company execs said, “You gotta be kidding,” but they went along, and bought a 19-acre plot of worthless Yukon tundra for $1,000. This parcel was subdivided into 21 million one-inch parcels, and the “deeds” were printed for under $9,000. It turned out to be an advertising sensation. Every box sold as fast as the garishly colored deeds could be printed.

 

Amusingly, later on, after Sgt. Preston got canceled, former six-year-olds, and their lawyers, began asking how much their property had increased in value. Apparently, they were serious. Suits were threatened. But Quaker had protected itself by not registering any of the titles, so the deeds were without value. I’d been gyped (I hope that ancient word is okay; it comes from “gypsy,” and I mean no disrespect to any ethnic group.)

 

But the point is that in my small-fry life I became alert to the offer of what then were called “premiums.” Send in a cereal box top with a dime Scotch-taped to it and you would get back, in your own mailbox, something that sounded to be quite valuable and interesting, not swampland, but a genuine decoder ring, for instance. From Ralston–Purina, mailing address Checkerboard Square, St. Louis, Missouri (what a sensationally romantic name) I got a Roy Rogers straight shooter combination magnifying glass and compass that glowed in the dark.

 

My memory has fogged a little; it might have been another Western hero, Hopalong maybe, but not the Lone Ranger, because from him I got (after he had received my Cheerios box top) a silver bullet whistle. Now I remember. Hopalong sent me a cow skull neckerchief slide, like the one he wears, if his is made of plastic. I also remember sending away for and receiving a Superman parachute rocket and a Smilin’ Jack (from the Terry and the Pirates program) flying saucer pistol.

 

This was a world of media empowerment for a six-year-old. I, through my living room radio, was connecting with exotic places such as Checkerboard Square and Battle Creek, Michigan. I had to put together every deal myself, find an envelop and stamp in a dresser drawer, write the address in my own wobbly hand, deplete my allowance by a dime, ply a dangerous pair of scissors to snip the box top, and then walk my completed work out to the mailbox on the curb, remembering to flip up the red flag.

 

In a week, maybe two, I’d reap my reward. The disappointment in learning that the reward was just another bit of cheap trash really made no difference. I felt enlarged. I was living beyond the constraints of a tiny house in a tract. I was engaged with the world. And of course I was a land baron in the Yukon, which, I was pretty sure, was somewhere north of Stockton.

 

 

BYLINE: PHIL GARLINGTON

The Orange County Register

DATELINE: TAM VU, Vietnam:

 

A lot of village names got changed after the communist victory in 1975. The new regime banished them if they smacked of decadence or imperialism. But during what folks around here call the American War, this village was Binh Phouc.

 

John Depko says it took maybe half a minute for the teen-age grunts in his platoon to transliterate that name into something crude that summed up their feelings about being sent to the Mekong Delta in 1969. Depko was one of the guys who fought here, was wounded here, received a medal for what he did here, and whose life was forever changed by what happened here. Now he's a senior investigator in the Orange County Public Defender's Office, fighting for the accused. Maybe you've read about him previously in the Register.

 

He's the guy whose dogged insistence on reopening old files eventually led to the release of DeWayne McKinney, imprisoned 20 years for a murder it's very unlikely he could have committed.

 

In a way, McKinney is a free man because of what happened right around here on Feb. 6, 1969. Depko had come to Vietnam as an infantry lieutenant and platoon leader in the 9th Infantry Division. He was a staunch Nixon Republican from Orange County. He went home a hippie, a vegetarian and an advocate of nonviolence. But most of all he went home thoroughly disillusioned with his government - "all the lies.”

 

The operation Depko helped lead to try to save the bridge over the Cau Quan had not been wellplanned. Two platoons tumbled out of the helicopters at dusk. Up near the DMZ, the Marines would have reconnoitered with fire, lobbying grenades into the tree line. But there were too many people out here in the fertile Mekong for that, women and children from the village wandering everyplace. A new bridge had just been rebuilt, the former having been blown by the Viet Cong. The captain took one platoon across the bridge, and Depko's platoon had the other end. They just had time to hunker down behind some low dikes as night fell.

 

"I was lying on my back when green fireflies began dancing around my head," Depko says. Actually, tracers from an AK-47. Then the tapping of machine guns and a blinding flash as a grenade exploded, peppering his legs with fragments and sending his rifle and gear spinning into the darkness.

 

Despite being wounded from the grenade, Depko rushed around trying to get his soldiers to return fire. Nobody fired back. Within minutes, four troopers were dead and half the others wounded. Depko finally found a rifle and aimed a volley at the winking muzzle flashes in the tree line. It was useless. The Viet Cong demolished the bridge with charges, then ebbed away. For his valor in trying to rally his stunned command, Depko received the Bronze Star. Depko deserved the medal, but he was galled by the lie in the citation. The VC conducted a textbook guerrilla attack, pinning down the guards while sappers blew the bridge. But in his citation, the military brass said Depko's actions "had routed the enemy.”

 

"As I continued my tour, I saw ineffective and even disastrous military operations falsely portrayed as victories," he says. When he returned to the States, Depko joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and campaigned for peace candidate George McGovern for president. Depko says he's happy in Southern California and never wants to travel in a Third World country again. But he is curious about the village that was once Binh Phouc.

 

I'm here in the delta, and there's a breathless saturated heat. Everything grows in tropical luxuriance, including coconuts, bananas and pineapples. It's heavily populated, with farmers wading around in the fields in conical yellow hats. Standing on the bridge over the Cau Quan, I'm looking around at things Depko probably saw on any mind-numbing, energy-sapping afternoon. Billowing white cumulus, all quadrants. Flooded blocks of rice paddies, lime green with new shoots, and punctuated with strutting geese.

 

Gathered around the houses are concrete, temple-shaped tombs, set above the water table, like in New Orleans. Beneath me, on the river, the crew of a wooden junk is unloading roof tiles that would do fine in Mission Viejo. The bridge is one of hundreds in a flat countryside laced with rivers. The village has closed in around the bridge, built in 1994. The thatched huts of Depko's day have given way to narrow brick-shaped stucco houses with steeply pitched roofs. Villagers still recline in hammocks, but the mass-produced plastic patio chair has taken off. Tam Vu is seven or eight miles off the main drag, Highway 1, and isn't in the guidebooks, so it doesn't get many foreign visitors.

 

Population? Maybe a couple of thousand. I went out to what the locals call the tank base. Evidently, American armor was stationed here at some point in the war, and the one relic left is a rusting antenna mast. Beside it a painted poster depicts Ho Chi Minh hoisting barbells. The former base is now a soccer field. As I wandered around, I was popular right away. Local school kids in their uniforms, white shirts with red scarves, clumped around and practiced their English word, "Hello.” We all had a laugh. American visitors seem to amuse Vietnamese children. And that's probably progress for the very quiet, very peaceful little village of Tam Vu, nee Binh Phouc, in the Mekong Delta.

 

 

 

 

April 27, 2000 Thursday

THE FALL OF SAIGON; 25 YEARS LATER

Ho Chi Minh City has taken to modern life

BYLINE: PHIL GARLINGTON,

The Orange County Register

DATELINE: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

 

The Rex, the Caravelle, the Continental. The downtown grand hotels anchor the pulsating, glitzy nightlife of this increasingly Westernized city. The streets teem with motorbikes carrying stylishly attired examples of what the Hong Kong media call the "GenerAsian," thousands of very hip young Vietnamese cruising on their Honda Dreams, cell-phone toting and e-savvy.

 

For a long time after the collapse of Saigon in 1975, however, this lifestyle wasn't tolerated by the ruling regime. Still, the government hasn't completely capitulated.

You still can't get a Big Mac here. I'm thinking about this while relaxing on a terrace to catch my breath and dry off after walking around downtown. I'm gazing across the boulevard at the hordes of shoppers heading into a giant mall. It looks pretty much like Little Saigon in Westminster.

 

When Jan Moorhead, a Vietnam War Red Cross worker from Orange County, returned here in 1995, she wondered if the country might be turning back toward the harsh Cold War communism of the three-colored wall poster model depicting triumphant workers, fists upraised _ of Orwellian loudspeakers on the street corners blaring propaganda. Didn't happen.

Of course, right this minute, because of the coming anniversary, the palings in front of government buildings are plastered with posters depicting triumphant workers. But they come down next month.

 

Moorhead used to work just a stone's throw from the Rex. Now a state parole officer, and before that an officer with the Orange County probation department, she's a self-described adrenaline junkie, imbued with the idealism of her generation, and wanting to do something for her country. Moorhead eventually became the manager of the USO Club for servicemen here, in what is now an office building. More than 100,000 young soldiers came through the USO annually during the height of the war. Most of them were still teen-agers, and Moorhead and her staff fed them ice cream, burgers and encouragement. Once travel restrictions were eased, Moorhead returned to look at a Vietnam at peace. "But my impression five years ago was that there was a lot of propaganda, and that the government was cracking down again," she says.

 

In late 1995 the government launched a particularly vitriolic effort to control "social evils." The drive was mainly against drugs and prostitution. But the bureaucrats also went after "ideas from the West" which they felt were polluting Vietnam's cultural heritage. Things like karaoke and English-language advertising. And rap music.

 

The campaign encouraged citizens to turn over their American video and music tapes. Many did, and the tapes were publicly burned. In the end, it worked out pretty much like anyone would expect. Today, Top 40 tunes can be heard coming from every restaurant and bar on Le Loi Boulevard. The politburo's principled line against karaoke has been a dismal flop, as anyone strolling downtown will notice. Hip-hop is big. Coke and Pepsi have plenty of advertising. Now the government has a new crusade, and one may be a little more realistic. Following the lead of China, the politburo has stepped up an attack on another Western evil: plastic bags. Hard-line Beijing already has outlawed plastic bags in markets. Vietnam merely declared a one-day, nationwide moratorium on Earth Day.

 

But shoppers are being encouraged to use traditional bamboo baskets to carry home purchases. Also, as part of an AIDS awareness campaign, the government is sponsoring a national contest to name a new brand of condoms, even though Vietnam already produces a couple of lines, "Yes" and "Hello." And the English-language daily, The Viet Nam News, reads like a "Saturday Night Live" parody of a government-controlled newspaper. The front page always emphasizes highlevel talks between ministers that consistently produce an exchange of ideas and cooperation on relevant issues. Interested readers get such news as, "Permanent member of the Politburo Standing Board of the Party Central Committee called on Vietnamese writers to work for the sake of preserving the nation's identity and its cultural values." But the newspaper is supported in part by advertising from the multinationals. And some of the ad copy provokes a smile: "Mitsubishi Lancer: One Class Above."

 

It's a bustling city that would make Jan Morehead happy. And it's a city that might make some of the soldiers she tended think about a return ticket.

 

 

The Script Doctor

(Excerpts from the testimony of Harold A. Rothberg in the case of The State of California vs. Edward Baile, heard in Los Angeles Superior Court, the Honorable William R. Boggs presiding.)

(Assistant district attorney) Henderson: “Please describe, if you would, your first meeting with the defendant.”

Rothberg: “It was at my home, I was...”

Boggs: “For the record, your address, please.”

Rothberg: “I live at 1304 Hyperion Vista Drive, Beverly Hills. Suddenly the door of my study burst open, and...”

Boggs: “And your occupation, please.”

Rothberg: “I’m the chief script consultant for Joe Levine, the producer.

Boggs: “Proceed.”

Rothberg: “I’m at home, working on a rush rewrite of “The Limerick Affair,” when I hear this crash-bang outside my door...”

Henderson “Perhaps for the clarification of the jury, you could explain your duties as a consultant.”

Rothberg: Uh, sure. I’m usually referred to as a script doctor. Mr. Levine may have a property with potential, but it’s neither fish nor fowl. It’s not DeNiro and it’s not DiCaprio. Maybe there’s no male camaraderie or too much. You remember “The Android Factor? You won’t believe it but originally the biochemist had no sense of humor. I’m the one who made him a kidder. You took one look and said, ‘Jeff Goldblum.’ “The Factotum Principle” was another example...”

Boggs. “Thank you, Mr. Rothberg.”

Henderson: “You were telling us about the circumstances...”

Rothberg. “Yes. Okay. I was working on ‘Limerick.’ The Brad Pitt character is just saying to the girl, “Drifting with the Tide?” – the scene’s in a laundromat, -- and I’m thinking, what is she gonna say, when the door bangs open and there’s, ah, Mr. Baile”

Henderson: Do you see Mr. Baile in the courtroom?”

Rothberg. “Over there.”

Henderson: Had you seen the defendant previously to his arrival that night in your study?”

Rothberg: Never. All I know is the guy’s got a Winchester 12-gauge pump with the 18-inch barrel pointed at my chest.”

Henderson “You were familiar with the weapon?

Rothberg: “Sure. I wrote it into “The Whirlybird Sanction.” The original version had a gas-operated semiautomatic Browning with a 28-inch barrel, but it didn’t look right on Pacino because he’s so short.”

Henderson: “Describe Mr. Baile’s appearance on the night in question.”

Rothberg: “I’d describe his appearance as being that of a lunatic....”

(Defense attorney) Mead: Objection, your honor, the witness is...”

Boggs. “Sustained. The jury will disregard. The witness will limit himself to a specific physical description of the defendant’s appearance.”

Rothberg: “Well. I’m not a reporter. It would be easier to tell you what he should have been wearing. Let’s see. He had on a brown suit, as I recall.

Henderson: “Would you say the defendant displayed an excited manner?”

Mead: “Objection.”

Henderson: “I withdraw the question. What did the defendant say to you?”

Roth berg: “Something like, ‘either you’re gonna read “Docker Man” or I’m gonna Balkanize you...’”

Henderson: “He threatened you with the shotgun?”

Mead: “Objection.”

Boggs: “Overruled. Witness will answer.”

Rothberg: “The gun was pointed at my chest.”

Henderson: “What was your reaction.”

Rothberg: “I didn’t like ‘Balkanize.’ It’s a little too studied. I wouldn’t use ‘Balkanize’ except with Woody Allen... ‘Cut in half,’ is better, but trite. I’d...”

Henderson: “But you were frightened?”

Rothberg: “Yeah. But after fifteen years in the picture business with Joe Levine I’ve seen just about...”

Henderson: “Then what happened?”

Rothberg: “Under the circumstances, I agreed to glance at his script. “Docker Man” is sort of cute. You know, the average office Joe.   I got a little Ethan Hawke flutter. But the characterization was vague.”

Henderson: “And?”

Rothberg: “I told him so.”

Henderson: “You told a gun-wielding, overexcited author that his ....?”

Mead: Objection.

Boggs: “Sustained. Rephrase the question, Mr. Henderson.”

Henderson: “You told Mr. Baile that the script lacked characterization?”

Rothberg: “That was one problem. But mainly the story simply didn’t work. A bank robbery, because it’s so common, requires huge ingenuity. In “Docker” what happens is that the protagonist sets fire to something next door and then runs into the bank dressed like a fireman, but instead of an ax he’s carrying an Uzi...”

Henderson “A fireman with an Uzi?”

Rothberg: “Lame. Big time.”

Baile (inaudible): “....charlatan....Hollywood faker...”

Boggs: “The defendant will seat himself immediately. Mr. Mead! Bailiff...”

Baile (inaudible): “...travesty...”

Mead: “I apologize, your honor. Overwrought emotions are responsible, not any disrespect to the court.”

Henderson: “Did you advise the defendant?”

Rothberg: “I suggested a young Gene Hackman approach. ‘Bonny and Clyde’ meets ‘The Bank Shot’. More of a caper. Might be funny to have the crooks dressed up like doctors. Legionnaire’s disease, or something. And they rob the bank without even using guns.”

Baile (inaudible): “...every artistic scruple...”

Boggs: “Mr. Mead, this is my final warning.”

Henderson: “How did the defendant react to these suggestions?”

Rothberg: “Not well. He insisted the story worked as it was.”

Henderson” “Ironic.”

Rothberg: “He should have listened to me.”

 

The Caribou Hunt

From The Fairbanks Nugget

 

At the end of March the editor told me to hire a plane and to fly up to Deadhorse on the North Slope to interview some Teamster officials about the latest labor beef with the pipeline truckers. Two hours into the flight, the pilot of the DeHavilland turned to me and said the weather was going sour and we’d have to lay over awhile at Beetles. As we banked left I could see the towering cumulus over the Brooks Range had turned black and nasty. “Sorry about this,”said the pilot, “but Fairbanks says this is real fast moving and may clear out in a couple of hours.”

 

It was inconvenient, but I hoped I could get a phone connection in Beetles and reschedule. I was brand new at the Anchorage Times, I didn’t want to skunk my first out-of-town assignment. It was dusk -- 2:30 in the afternoon - when Beetles came in view, a few dozen cabins clustered beside a hard packed runway of snow. As we descended the Beaver began to act up. Outside I could see snow blowing across the runway. “Thirty-knot crosswind today,” said the pilot. He crabbed to compensate for drift, kicked the plane straight with rudder over the threshold, and touched down on one wheel. We rolled to a stop in front of the cafe.

 

Beetles is an isolated outpost in a wilderness of stunted Arctic spruce. From the porch of the cafe I could see the first lights coming on in some of the cabins, and across the runway a lone snowmobile raced along a ragged line of spruce silhouetted behind. The thermometer by the door registered 30 below. While the pilot and the airport operator refueled the plane, I took a seat at the counter and ordered coffee and pie. The waitress shook her head to my question about the phone. Nobody had been able to call out for days.

 

“You can forget about that,” said the man at the counter. He was the only other customer, a Beeltes resident, small and wiry, pinched face, middle-fifties, wearing the usual red flannel shirt and a hunting cap with the ear flaps up. I ate my pie and he puffed on his Original Missouri Meerschaum made out of laminated corncob. We fell to talking. I commented on the strength of the wind. “I seen it worse,” he said. Now, if he hadn’t seen it worse, I would have picked up my bag and gone back to the Lower Forty-Eight, because in Alaska, nothing is so bad that it wasn’t three times worse a little before you got there. The man ruminated awhile and then said. “I once landed a Cessna taildragger on this very field with a forty-knot, ninety degree crosswind. And I did it from the back seat. With a dead man and a frozen caribou in front.”

 

Like almost everybody else in Alaska I have a license, so I know that what he said had a lot of tall-tale possibility. To land a plane in that kind of crosswind requires a whole lot of rudder pedal, which is difficult to apply if you’re sitting in the back seat. The man noticed I appeared skeptical. “I’ll tell you what happened,” he said. “Two years ago about this time Ned Barnes and me went hunting caribou up around Trouble Bar in Ned’s 170. Ned landed on the bar and we had some breakfast and then set out hunting.

 

“Around one o’clock I killed a big caribou and as we was dragging it back to camp we come across another and Ned popped that one. One of these big boys must have weighed at least a hundred fifty, and the other about a hundred thirty. It took us nearly an hour to haul ‘em back to the river. It was pretty dark by then and damn cold, and the carcasses had froze up hard as a board. It was late, like I say, and we was both winded, and I voted for staying overnight at a cabin nearby and going back in the morning after we rested up. But Ned was in a big rush, because he’d told his wife he’d be back that night and anyway, it was only about forty minutes back to Beetles.

 

“But the we got to thinking about loading, we realized we’d made a big mistake, because all we had with us with a little bow saw, which would have been all right to quarter the carcasses if we’d done it right after we shot ‘em, but now they had froze solid, and cutting ‘em with the saw was impossible.   We needed an ax, but we didn’t have an ax.

“Ned says ‘ We’ll just set ‘em in the seats. ’He was in a big sweat to take off, because that gravel bar only has about 800 usable, and we had a big load, and he wanted to get off while he still had some light.

 

“Well, as I say, we had a load. Ned himself weighed 200 or so. Of the four passengers, so to speak, I was the lightest, so I got in the back and then we tugged and pushed the smaller carcass in with me. Then we wrestled the other carcass into the right seat next to Ned. I’m telling you, we just did get in the air. We wallowed off the end of that gravel bar with the wheels skimming along the water. And the wind was knocking us all round. But Ned kept the throttle fire-walled while we shot down the river, and pretty soon we had enough speed to clear the trees. ‘Ha,’ says Ned, ‘I knew we wasn’t overloaded.’

 

“The wind was playing hell with us a tree-top level, so Ned took us up to about a thousand before throttling back. It was pretty darn dark now and no moon, so Ned says he’d better call ahead on 122.8 and have the airport put on the lights. He was just picking up the mike when he says, ‘Jeez, I must have pulled something.’ And a second later he says, ‘Oh my God.’ And then he dies. It must have been the strain of wrestling around with those two carcasses, along with the worry about the takeoff. I knew he was stone dead, too, from the way he slumped back all of a sudden with the mike still in his hand.

 

“I leaned over the seat and give it full throttle again because right then I was thinking altitude. Get some altitude. It was a little smoother at two grand so I reduced power, trimmed up and tried to get oriented. I couldn’t see lights anywhere and because of the dark and overcast I’d lost the horizon. So I went on instruments and got myself straightened out.

 

“All this time, mind, I was leaning forward over the front seat between a dead man and a caribou carcass. I knew it was something like 145 magnetic from Trouble Bar to Beetles, so I set the DG and steered it. But I had trouble staying on course until I finally figured out that Ned’s right foot was jammed against the rudder pedal. I must have been a little shook up. Anyway, lucky for me, I moved his foot before he stiffed up too much.

 

“By this time my eyes picked up the horizon. Then I called in and told the people back here what had happened. Jim Hayes (he’s the man over there at the pumps with your pilot), Jim says to me: ‘The wind is gusting to forty knots down here, and it’s dead across the runway.’

 

“Now that did worry me, because, naturally, being in the back, I couldn’t get to the darn rudder pedals. With a lighter wind I’d have figured, well, I guess I’ll just ground loop and prang a wingtip, and settle for that. The way it was, I stood a good chance of getting hurt, because, for one thing, I couldn’t keep my seat belt on while I leaned over the front. I didn’t relish the idea of the plane flipping and rolling up into a big Christmas tree ornament.

 

“In another couple of minutes I picked up the airport lights and gave Jim another call. ‘It’s worse’ he says, ‘gusting to forty-five. I wouldn’t try it, if I was you,’ he says. I decided to fly around and burn off some gas while I thought it over, but in a minute Jim calls and says, ‘Listen, I got the weather and they’re calling for gusts to seventy in the next hour. You’d better come down.’

 

“Jim told me to try to land long so if I did flip I’d go into the drifts at the end of the runway. He said he had everybody in town there to pull me out in a hurry. But by this time I’d already worked out an idea of my own. It took me about five minutes of straight and level flight to get ready (as near as I could manage it), and then I swung around and set up my approach. When I got down to the threshold it was a real rollercoaster. I chopped the throttle, put the left wing down into the wind, and then gave it full right rudder to keep the plane straight down the runway. All I can tell you is that I landed pretty as you please on the left main, and came to a stop right in front of this very building, without putting even one little scratch on the fuselage. And when everybody come rushing up they couldn’t have been more surprised, because there I was, sitting in the back seat. And I had just made a perfect crosswind landing.”

The Beetles man looked at me calmly as he relit his pipe. Obviously, he expected me to ask him how he had accomplished this miracle. I didn’t disappoint him. ‘Simple. I just borrowed a leg from that caribou in the back seat with me. I used the little bow saw to cut off one of his forelegs. When I bent over Ned’s shoulder, the caribou leg was just long enough to reach the right rudder pedal. So after I cut the throttle on final approach, I handled the yoke with me left hand, and used my right to hit the pedal with the caribou leg.”

 

My pilot came in right then and said Anchorage radar had reported the front had moved over the range, and we could get through the pass if we hustled. That meant I could get to Deadhorse in time for my interview after all. I quickly paid for my pie and coffee, said good-bye to the Beetles man, and in another minute we were airborne and on our way to the slope. But we left in such a rush that I never did get a chance to ask Jim, the airport manager, about the veracity of the man who said he landed a plane with the last step of a dead caribou.

 

SENIOR SWASH

BYLINE: PHIL GARLINGTON The Orange County Register




I'd wanted to learn the sword.  But I thought maybe I'd waited too long to complete my Renaissance persona.  In college I'd picked up some of the art of the courtier. I can write a
sonnet, and quaff a flagon. As an office Prufrock I'd learned to flatter my betters while mocking them behind their backs.  But I didn’t know how to fence.



My worry that I might be too old for sword fighting disappeared when I saw that I wasn't the only gaffer to sign up for beginning fencing at the local junior college. Ages ranged from spotty teen to grizzled gamp.
 Our instructor looked the very soul of the fencing instructor. Young, reed-thin, sporting a goatee and wispy mustache, he deftly punctuated his opening remarks with a few flicks of the foil that he held gently between two fingers.  D'Artagnan.  To the life. 

He ran down some basic realities about the sport. First, age isn't necessarily a bar.  Fencing, like tennis, is a sport for life, and there are plenty of octogenarian fencers still wielding the blade. One other wannabe fencer in the class I already knew from around town.  Willie, 55, flowing white hair, owns one of the few homemade concrete boats that actually got launched (most are still sitting in backyards and boat yards). Two other seniors were in the class as well, one a local
winemaker, another an ophthalmologist. 

In all, the beginning class had 20 students ranging in age, 11-70.

While age is no impediment, it turned out that weak knees are. Several of the younger would-be fencers quickly had to drop out, once they found that fencing positions require long sessions crouched, knees bent. Before the instructor would trust us with a foil, we had to spend many hours learning the basic moves, both advancing and retreating. 

Fencing was a lot more strenuous than I had imagined.  I thought my legs were in pretty good shape.  After the first class, a
reappraisal was in order. "This is a strenuous workout," said the young D'Artagnan.
"Stretching and a warm-up are essential. " Not only that: "This sport involves contorting the body into an unaccustomed position, with feet placed at 90 degrees, hips at 45 degrees (in relationship to the forward foot) shoulders back, and the left hand (if right-handed) placed behind the head. "

We spent the first 10 minutes of every lesson limbering up. The first few nights we learned the basic litany of the fencing academy: advance, retreat, extend, thrust, feint, riposte, parry.  Some fancy new words, too: pattinado, a shuffling two-step advance and thrust; rassemblement, a jump backward to avoid an attack; and ballestra, a jumping lunge.

Back and forth, we shuffled the length of the studio's wooden floor, under the command of the young D'Artagnan. 

"Advance, advance, advance, retreat, retreat, advance, advance, pattinado! " Finally, third week, the moment when the new student actually holds the foil.  A hundred movie scenes flashed through my mind --  Basil Rathbone, Errol Flynn, Cyrano D'Bergerac, the Count of Monte Cristo.  Battling up the stone stairs to the castle ramparts.

Meanwhile, a new vocabulary.  Disengage.  Circle left, circle right, beat, coule.

Next we got the other equipment.  First, the white padded jacket (sadly, ours did not have little red hearts on the breast). "The jacket is traditionally white," D'Artagnan said, "because before electric fencing, opponents blackened the tip of the foil with charcoal. " The white jacket revealed a hit. 

Nowadays of course, in fencing matches, opponents use foils (or epees or sabers) that are wired, and a light and buzzer reveal when the tip touches the opponent's metallic jacket. We also got the mask, so as not to get poked in the eye.  Just exactly like looking out a screen door, and not any easier on the vision.



The beginning fencing class was nine weeks long and we didn't actually get to fight each other until the last week.  The instructor paired us.  Some of the intermediate fencers were told off as judges to call the hits. This was it!  An actual battle!  My opponent was a young man of
about 25 years with lightning bolts razor-ed on the sides of his head. Even though I knew I wouldn't be skewered (since there's a big plastic plug on the end of the foil), still, my heart pounded.  A
fight!

We saluted each other.  The judge raised a hand.  "Ready. " We assumed the fencer's traditional pose, knees bent, left hand behind the head (that's not only for balance but also to keep the ungloved hand from damage during the match).

"Fence.”

My opponent and I immediately forgot everything we had learned in the preceding eight weeks. We flailed at each other like two kids with wooden sticks.  We clashed the foils together like pirates.  We lunged, and rushed and retreated with much more gusto than grace.  At last, after an eternity, the score stood at 4-4, four hits apiece.  The next hit would decide.  Both of us were bathed in sweat. "My glasses are steamed up," my opponent said.

 "Good," I thought, and rushed him, scoring the winning hit.



Perhaps my victory was a little compromised.  But in condign recompense, it was the only victory I had for quite awhile after.  In the next weeks (in the "neophyte" class) we had bouts
following every lesson.  I fenced with everybody.  Even the 11-year-old girl beat me.  I was philosophical; I was learning.  Even so, the barely masked disdain of the teen-agers in the class was a little hard to take. 

But so what.  They're disdainful of everything. My nemesis was a redheaded 13-year-old whom I dubbed "The Red Meteor. " His favorite tactic was to fall back about 10 feet and then fleche, run at me with the foil tip pointed at my heart.  The first time he sprang this I was so amazed at being stabbed in the rib cage that I nearly dropped the foil. Although he easily defeated me every time, the Red Meteor was
always courteous.  "You defend yourself very well," he would say, without adding the prepositional, "for an old guy" that nonetheless sort of hung in the air.


In the end, however, the best matches were with the other seniors, with Willie, or with the eye doctor, or with the winemaker.  We were all pretty evenly matched and had the same majestic 
pace.  Time out to catch one's breath was perfectly acceptable. None of us will ever make the Senior Olympics.  But as Willie says, it's cardiovascular exercise and more fun than lap swim.



Secretly, though, we all know there's something glamorous and adventurous about fencing.  Sure, during the day, we're boring duffers.  But in class, the Four Musketeers.  The instructor, as part of a fund-raiser for new equipment, cobbled together a video he called, "The best of the
swashbucklers," clips he pieced together from old movies.  It was great.  We watched the duels between Flynn and Rathbone with new insight.  I couldn't help feeling that maybe I, too, was of that company. The best swordsman in the realm? You talkin’ to me, Cyrano? 

 

 

The Man Who Would Be King

“The Law, as quoted, lays down a fair conduct of life, and one not easy to follow.” Kipling likes to talk about The Law, by which he does not mean Blackstone. The Law that often crops up in Kipling fiction is a kind of Moral Code, or Bundle of Settled Behaviors, practiced by The White Man in territories beyond the pale of civilization, law courts, and the restraints of the police. It is a contract (or “contrack”) that governs what is permissible for roving Europeans in societies populated by Natives, Intermediates (Eurasians), Loafers, Ruffians and the Heathen. This Law is a lot more flexible than anything in the “Commentaries.”

This is not the place to mention the author’s caustic racism and haughty imperialism. Kipling’s stance is known. Here we look at a storyteller at the height of his game, to see if we can make out his adroit technique of exposition, of setting out a complicated tale of adventure.  

Kipling leads with the exotic locale.   “The beginning of everything was in a railway train upon the road to Mhow from Ajmir.” Even if the reader does not know much geography he knows this will not be set in Suffolk or Kent. Because of a “deficit in the budget,” the narrator, who is the editor of a provincial newspaper called The Backwoodsman, is riding in third class, when he strikes up a conversation with a voluble tramp, “a wanderer and a vagabond…with an educated taste for whisky.”   Kipling limns the tramps character in one revealing sentence from the miscreant’s lips.

“If India was filled with men like you and me, not knowing more than the crows where they’d get their next day’s rations, it isn’t seventy million the land would be paying – it’s seven hundred millions.”

First, the reader feels the ingratiating moocher (“men like you and me”), then recognizes the apt metaphor of “crows,’ the most opportunistic and successful of foragers. The word “rations” tells us that the speaker probably has served in the shadow of a flag. And the rest shows a grandiose desire for magnificent pecuniary gain. We get a good feeling for Peachy right off the bat. Kipling soon reveals that Peachy and a confederate are conspiring something nefarious, and through the tramp’s wheedling, the editor is drawn in on the fringes.

Before returning to his mundane newspaper chores, the editor acts as a go-between, delivering a message to Peachy’s co-conspirator, before returning to his newspaper office. I think it worthwhile to quote at length a description of this office, since it describes not only the life of the small-time editor, but more importantly to us, in the matter of trade craft, it shows the author’s perfect understanding of the semi-colon.

“A newspaper office seems to attract every conceivable sort of person, to the prejudice of discipline. Zkenana-mission ladies arrive, and beg that the Editor will instantly abandon all his duties to describe a Christian prize-giving in a back-slum of a perfectly inaccessible village; Colonels who have been passed over for command sit down and sketch the outline of a series of ten, twelve, twenty-four leading articles on Seniority versus Selection; missionaries wish to know why they have not been permitted to escape from their regular vehicles of abuse and swear at a brother missionary under special patronage of the editorial We; stranded theatrical companies troop up to explain that they cannot pay for their advertisements, but on their return from New Zealand or Tahiti will do so with interest; inventors of patent punkah-pulling machines, carriage couplings, and unbreakable swords and axle-trees, call with specifications in their pockets and hours at their disposal; tea companies enter and elaborate their prospectuses with the office pens; secretaries of ball-committees clamor to have the glories of their last dance more fully described; strange ladies rustle in and say, ‘I want a hundred lady’s cards printed at once, please,’ which is manifestly part of an Editor’s duty; and every dissolute ruffian that ever tramped the Grand Trunk Road makes it his business to ask for employment as a proof reader.”

How this amusingly piles up the details of a busy newspaper office. It also cleverly sets the next scene, letting the reader know why there is nothing unusual in having odd sorts, even lunatics, stumble into a newspaper office at off hours.   So when the two Rogues of Loaferdom turn up with their fantastic plan to become kings in the frozen hinterland of Afghanistan, the reader is ready to play along, rather than to say to himself, “Why doesn’t the editor throw those two scamps into the street?”

But back to semi-colons. This selection illustrates their correct use, to separate statements that are related, not enough for a comma, but so closely that a period is too abrupt and final, when herding together such a group of similar illustrations. Grammarians are prone to think the semi-colon is better described as a semi-period. Or as a double-coma. Or maybe something between a comma and a period. Some have even argued (as I do) that in newspaper work the semi-colon isn’t necessary and can be replaced in all cases by a period. But in the hands of a craftsman, the semi-colon speeds up reading by getting rid of the “comma plus a conjunction” formula. One can see in the selection quoted that all the statements are complete sentences, thus meriting full stops. But that would have ruined the fluidity and descriptive power.

Semi-colon use is interesting, but the true triumph of this short story is the inventive way Kipling gets the reader over the big hump of incredulity. This is a fantastic and completely improbable adventure. How can the author convince us to suspend disbelief? The setup of the two tramps helps a lot. They are knock-about jacks-of-all trades but are mainly former soldiers.   They know how to recruit, how to drill, how to fight a skirmish. That alone, however, wouldn’t be enough to made us think two foreigners with a handful of Henry-Martini rifles could conquer a kingdom, except that it turns out the priests of this lost Kingdom are….Freemasons, and that the two scamps are Masters of the Craft, knowing all the handshakes and secret words.

Force and fear can only go so far; what welds together a nation is an accepted ideology, such as a religion or a national myth. That Kipling should choose “Freemasonry” as his unifier is his sly little joke, just as is calling the mythical kingdom “Kafiristan.” But it works, since everybody knows that ritual, mumbo-jumbo and an initiated priesthood, are all required for successful nation building.

 

Duke of Earl

 

In a bakery the other day I heard "Duke of Earl" on the café’s oldies playlist. Gene Chandler, the artist. Released 1961. It came to me, I've been hearing "Duke of Earl" on the radio all my cognizant life. What the heck is the story behind "Duke of Earl?

 

Gene Chandler's real name is Eugene Drake Dixon. In 1959 he and some other kids had a doo-wop band called the Dukerays, and they had a record contract. Before beginning their sessions in the studio they’d warm up with voice exercises. Do, do, do, do." One of the band members was named Earl, and over time, somehow, "Do, do, do, do, Er-rrrall” became part of the warmup, and then, by the natural association of the band’s name, "do, do, do, Duke of Earl." Catchy. But that's all they had. Eugene asked for help from a songwriter named Steve Plessey. Let’s see. "Girl, furrow, burrow, squirrel..." But it was Eugene who had the epiphany when in his falsetto voice he came out with, "When eye-yee wa-aalk through this world, nuthin’can stop..." The songwriter picked it up, and in half an hour they had two minutes.

 

Eugene took it to the label. No, no, no, no, the producer says, " See, Gene, earl is a title: like, count, duke, knight earl. Duke is higher than Earl. It doesn't make sense. It's stupid." The label wanted him to do “Night Owl” for the next single. That left Eugene (who by now had changed his surname, borrowing Chandler from a now forgotten Fifties movie star) free to try another label. He recorded with a pick-up band, three takes, twenty minutes. Released, it went straight to number one and stayed on the charts for fifteen weeks. It has been in constant rotation ever since, and has been one of the most frequently requested songs on the radio for 55 years. Chandler never had another top ten hit. He was inducted into the RRHOF and still performs in Vegas.

--Palo Verde Valley Times

 

Final Entropy

The End of Electric America

 

"And so, with that event, the lights dimmed and went out across the nation."

 

Midmorning, and I was lying on the couch thinking, getting closer to a resolution, when I heard a rapping at the front door. It was little Billy Neville, a kid belonging to the family living next door to my mom. Mom wanted to see me.   She is such a drama queen. A true case of histrionic behavior disorder. She never has had any resilience, even before my dad died. There she was in her kitchen nook, sobbing in the dark over a puddle of water from the leaking refrigerator. I told her to take some of her meds and go to bed. I'd handle it.

 

I gave Billy five bucks and sent him on his bicycle to Repurposeopolis to buy up a rucksack of candle ends. Then I walked down the street to the Seven Eleven and hired three muchachos. You don't speak Spanish, so I'll translate. They knew the price of day labor would be going up, but I convinced them it would take a few days for the market to adjust. So I got them for fifteen bucks an hour each. I put one muchacho to work putting a Thrombe wall on the south window in my mom's living room. Quick and butt simple way to heat up a room. I showed the next kid how to install a passive swamp cooler in a west-facing window, using cut up sheets draped over a frame. The prevailing wind would blow cool air into the house. That would help with summer coming on. The third helper cleaned out the remaining ice and moved the refrigerator into a closet, covering it with most of my mother's winter clothes. A root cellar. While they were busy I went around and used the remaining water pressure to fill up the bathtub, sink and every other container I could find.

 

In the garage I found a pile of leftovers from my dad's failed improvement projects. Some of it was air conditioning ducting, which I took upstairs to the sewing room. I had the guys rip out the casement to the dormer window, cut a hole in the floor, and run the ducting from the window into the kitchen nook below. Lighting. Some of the buckets and cans in the garage could be turned into a rocket stove for the backyard. The muchachos knew how to do it. They also made a box solar cooker to put in one of the sunny kitchen windows. We gathered up all the garden hose and coiled it on the south side of the roof, for water heating. Planter boxes in the back yard became the composting toilet. One of the guys, seeing some old tarps in the garage, said his family at home sewed or glued windrows of old clothing and blankets between two tarps, to make insulating panels to hang on walls. We looked around and collected a couple of bushels of old clothes and furniture mats, and with the tarps, made panels.

 

I think the guys got some ideas they could use. I suggested the might want to find a handcart to deliver water door to door. Billy came back from Repurposeopolis and I told him to put the wax in the sun and when it had softened enough go ahead and shape some candles, with payment per candle. I'd also pop for any messages my mom wanted him to deliver. Mom was sleeping, and I went home to lie on the couch, hoping I'd be able to continue where I’d left off.

 

Poets’ Corner

(A regular Chucwalla Reveille feature highlighting local talent.)

Something Must Be Done! About Ben Smedlap.

"Leigh Hunt is dust; he doesn't care; and apologies from me are rare..."

 

 Smedlap lives in Suburbia and has a nine-to-five in an office Downtown.  He has the usual wife, who also works, and standard children in school.  The combined Smedlap salaries suffice for an average American life.  

 

In their driveway at night sit two cars, a six cylinder and a four-cylinder.  In the Smedlap kitchen and bathroom, the usual appliances.  The house has cable and WiFi.  Smedlap pays all bills promptly.  Everything is normal.

 

One night an angel whispers to Smedlap in his sleep.  "Smedlap.  Save the world!" Upon arising, Smedlap tells his wife, "I'm riding my bicycle to work." 

"It's raining," says Mrs. Smedlap, "You don't have a bicycle."

 

Putting on his raincoat, Smedlap trudges to the bus stop. He arrives in time to watch the departure of the Downtown Express.  He waits patiently in the rain with a dozen raucous teens for the next local, then spends 40 minutes standing amidst a press of juvenile hyperactivity while the bus crawls through morning traffic.  His usual commute is fifteen minutes.

 

At the office Smedlap usually has a doughnut and coffee.  From the logo on the lid of the pink box, Smedlap knows the doughnuts are produced by a corporation that replaces native forests in Indonesia with palm oil plantations.  The coffee isn't sustainably grown.  The cart only has Styrofoam cups.  Smedlap empties the pencils from his "World's Best Dad" cup and fills it with tap water. 

 

His work is to calculate costs for the construction of a factory to be sited near the county watershed.  Smedlap sits quietly at his desk with hands folded until lunchtime.  A colleague stops at the door. 

"Hey Smedlap.  Wanna go down to the caf for a burger?" 

 

Smedlap shakes his head.  Beef production causes deforestation and methane buildup.  Raising animal protein is water intensive and inefficient. The walk home after work takes an hour, and crosses some bad neighborhoods, but he finds two bicycles at a yard sale.  After rolling the bikes into his garage, he disables the ignition block on his wife's car.

 

His children rush to greet him at the door.  "Daddy!  The TV isn't working, and we can't get on the internet."  His wife says he better check the circuit breakers right away. The lights are off and the pilot is out.  Smedlap explains that he made some calls earlier in the afternoon.  He also reneges on his promise to reward good report cards with xBoxes and iPads.  He says the family's cell phone contract won't be renewed.   The long planned vacation to Hawaii is canceled.  Later in the evening he gets a call from his father-in-law.  "My daughter says you've gone nuts. Do you want me to set up an appointment with somebody?"

 

On the ride to work next morning Smedlap gets his pant cuff caught in the chain, and his coat has a stripe of mud thrown up from the rear tire.  At the office his supervisor calls him in.  "Anything wrong, Ben?"  Smedlap says he can't take part in projects that increase carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  That afternoon Smedlap is called in again and fired.

 

On the ride home a passing truck splashes him.  A dog chases him for two blocks.  On the kitchen table is a note from his wife saying she's taken the children to her parents, and that she hopes he gets the help he needs.  The house is cold and dark.

 

That night he hears a soft voice in his sleep.  "Ben Smedlap.  Your name leads all the rest."

 

 

The March Up Country

As every schoolboy used to know, the Anabasis by Xenophon is the story of an army of battle-tested Greek mercenaries, 10,000 strong, who hired out in 401 BCE to swell the revolt led by Cyrus the younger against his older brother, the Persian king Artaxerxes II.   W.D. Rouse, in his translation, recounts events in unvarnished prose that carries the adventure forward like a novel. Here we will concentrate on the arts of persuasion used by the accidental general Xenophon to motivate and encourage a band of roughs, cutthroats and adventurers to maintain the army’s unity, a cohesion absolutely necessary for the Greeks to survive in hostile territory without any chance of succor from far away Greece.

First a brief recapitulation. The expedition got off to a bad start. The insurgent army raised by Cyrus marched toward the Persian capital in Babylon and met the king’s army at the battle field of Cunaxa. On their part of the field, the disciplined Greeks, veterans of the Peloponnesian War, easily routed the opposing Persians, but in the center the upstart Cyrus was killed by his brother’s bodyguard, meaning the expedition was instantly a failure. As Cyrus’ Persian troops melted away or surrendered, the Greeks were faced with hard choices. They understandably ignored the king’s offer of amnesty if they gave up their weapons. They opted instead to fight their way out of Persian territory and return to Greece.

Even greater trouble arose when their general and senior officers were all slain in a trap set by a Persian satrap who had feigned friendship. After the murders, the aristocratic Xenophon, who had joined the force as a supernumerary, became one of the leaders elected by democratic vote of the solders.   From then on Xenophon played the principle role in devising plans, exhorting the troops, threatening them if necessary, and even at times beating recalcitrant or disobedient soldiers.   On Xenophon’s advice, the army agreed to abandon the plan to retrace their route into Persia, and instead to march straight north through desert and snowy mountain passes towards the Black Sea, to seek safety in some of the Greek colonies on the shoreline.

Short on food, harassed constantly on their flanks by mounted Persian archers, and threatened by the pursuing Persian army, the Greeks fought their way through Mesopotamia and Armenia, all the time making on-the-spot democratic decisions that were usually the result of Xenophon’s eloquence and steady judgment, persuading the hot-headed, violent, bickering hoard of Greeks to stick together no matter what. Some in the Army would have preferred splitting into smaller bands to raid for plunder. Others had to be convinced to lay aside tribal quarrels they carried from their homelands. Throughout, however, Xenophon presented himself as an elected leader who would execute the will of the majority. He would not be an Achilles sulking in his tent if his views were not approved. Classical scholars claim that the leadership and governance displayed are examples of the consensus-seeking Socratic Method, since Socrates and Xenophon had been friends in Athens.

Xenophon recounts countless times during the Anabasis in which decisions were made by consensus. An army of unruly mercenaries, essentially a traveling polis, could not be led by the whip. He needed to win participatory approval from the ranks.

“If even an ordinary soldier can think of a better way to go, let him explain it to us without fear. Our survival is the common concern of all.”

 

 

On the Banju Be Very Afraid

Maybe I’m like the phony valetudinarian

In Moliere’s play with the harrowing

Plot about the Imaginary Invalid whose

Placebos always went down with the booze

But I’ve traveled the world and all seven

Oceans; seen a few things, between Earth and Heaven

Tropical disease, illness, and malady

Bloody bad cess ruins the holiday

Like one time in Banju. Trypanosomiasis

That’s sleeping sickness, to you, but as deadly as ISIS

Contaminated water, conditions unsanitary

Cause outbreaks of cholera; the sickness can tarry

For months in the guts of the people

And fill churches with mourners, graveyard to steeple

The hepatitis triplets, bros A, B, and C

Virus-borne pathogens in feces and pee

Don’t swim in that river! The dangerous hippo?

No, the real danger is the pathogen Crypto

So much to fear in the tropical jungle

Microbial, bacterial, everything fungal

And God, mosquitos, you can only defy

Them with netting, to thwart the aegypti

Spreading malaria, dengue, (how they bite us)

Encephalitis, leishmaniosis, don’t forget meningitis

Then Ebola turned up, another true villain

A cousin of his has killed half a million

As the old Benju rolls on its prurience created

Onchocerciasis; many people blind-sided

By the scourge schistosomiasis, a watery fluke

Rotavirus, shigellosis, a Devil’s brew souk

Dealing out infection is the main stock of trade

When you’re in Banju be very afraid.

 

To the Market

I choose the smaller four-wheeled grocery cart, that I’ll be less tempted to load it with plastic packaging.  I pluck four of the alcohol-saturated wipes from the cylinder posted at the entrance, and remove the coating of phlegm and fecal goo that replicated scientific tests have shown to be on the handles of grocery carts. 

I enter the garishly colored aisles of poisonous swill.  Warnings are absent.  No sign tells me that, “Here is the diabetes,” or “Here is the heart attack.”  Instead, slogans are all aimed at undermining human health, siren huckstering pointing to a crippled life of illness, physical ugliness, and disease.   

My life guide in her newspaper column has told me to stick to the perimeter.  Anything with health to it will be found there.  Eschew the middle aisles of cans and plastic-bound heavily processed food substitutes.  This would be where lurk the antifoaming agents, anti-caking and color retention additives, the emulsifiers, flavor enhancers, glazing agents, humectants and tracer gases.

I will steer clear of the carnage of the abattoir, with the grisly slabs of stagnant flesh and eviscerated organs, the oozing livers plump with toxic metals.  I look away from the coagulated lard in the ground meat. I avoid the creatures of the deep, once swimming things now contaminated with mercury, or swarming with lice from the sewer ponds of China.  Pass by.

I steer directly into produce.  An apple in a salad would be nice, if this fruit had not been sprayed with neurologically toxins such as cabendazim, bifenthrin and malathion.   Spinach reputedly is healthy, except for that uptake of e coli from the neighboring pig farm.  The strawberries of course have a veneer of pesticide residue.  Same for the bell peppers, cucumbers, cherries, grapes celery, peaches, and nectarines that form the pesticidal Dirty Dozen.

At last, a small table of forlorn organics.  I score a carrot and a sprig of kale.   Wait!  Wait!  I don’t see any certification as organic by Quality Assurance International.  For all I know, this stuff might come from a backyard plot near the dump, where it has leeched up a spoonful of arsenic and asbestos.

“Do you know where I can find the gluten-free section?”  A small elderly woman dressed in an all-cotton beige tabard, an Asian straw hat, and bamboo sandals.  In her basket is a free-range, cage-free, pastured six-pack of brown eggs and a Hass avocado.  She is one of us.

Olive oil is on the list, but it must be cold pressed, virgin and grown north of the 38th parallel. Organic yogurt, sans thickeners and with every known strain of probiotic including Streptococcus thermophiles, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Lactobacillus acidophilus.  Peanut butter, with nothing added except a pinch of salt (less than 50m per serving).  I’d get an organic tomato and an orange, except the label says they’ve been trucked in from Mexico.  But really, it is useless; there is nothing here to eat.  Nothing.  All around, a buffet of brine and suet, chemicals, and toxins, pesticides and additives, plastics and BHA.

I’d better go home.

 

 I can see inside you

Don’t say I cannot

I see your skull and spine and scapula,

The clavicle, vertebrae, the spiny process

I can see inside you

There’s nothing interior I miss

Kidneys bladder pancreas

I see your tendons, sinews, spleen

I see your nerves thrown up upon a screen

I can see inside you

Your skin is not a mask; I see right through

The soft pelt that wraps the bones

Gauzy silk, translucent, clear as crystal

An open window to your innards

I can see inside you

 

All inside the Middle Passage

Menudo, viscera, the twisted sausage

Colon transverse and descending,

The stalactite ureter drip, drip, dripping

Into a reservoir and out the pipes

I can see inside you

 

I see the corpuscles pulsing in their channels

Bilious liquids both green and black

Under plexus muscles taut inside your belly

Don’t say I’m not able

To see inside you

You are like the famous patient etherized upon a table

Opened wide by surgical incision

I can see inside you; I have x-ray vision

I can descry your corporeal means and ends

From polar north to Netherlands

All eleven cantons of the vulva can I view

Prepuce, urethra, annular labia, to name a few

I can see inside you

I can see your heart

Don’t say I cannot

 

“Eavesdrop on Somebody”

Two middle-aged women having a tete-a-tete at the Tea Cup Café in Chuckwalla. I don’t know brands, but their duds look expensive. Second-tier journalism would call these ladies well-coiffed, with an understated style. Studies in beige and muted purple. Because of the venue, I’d say IT middle-management.  

The conversation is earnest and polite. One speaks, the other remains inertly poised, lips parted, attentive. When the speaker finishes, an empathetic pause, then the other starts. Their iPhones rest by their right hands but appear to be turned off, signaling a basic understanding of courtesy. When I’m at the Tea Cup I always eavesdrop the adjoining tables. From past experience, I would guess the subject here is either the incompetence of their superiors at work, or the foolishness of husbands or boyfriends.

“…and when I woke up I didn’t know what time it was…the clock had stopped…”

“No. My God. Stopped? What did you do?”

“What could I do? It was the middle of the night…”

“Was Ralph there? Could he help you?”

“He is so sweet sometimes. But rising to the emergency is not in his skill set. Besides, lately we seem to have lost our connection… I mean…”

“I totally know. It’s the same with David. At this time of year he becomes so remote. His mind is entirely focused on April Fifteenth. He would be of no help at all…”

“Ralph is impossible in a crisis. You remember what happened with the Cuisinart…”

“I know exactly. You remember when David tried to make coffee on Mothers’ Day…”

--Chuckwalla Reveille

 

My Last Duchess

Browning’s masterpiece, along with his “The Bishop Orders His Tomb,“ perhaps together equal the creation of Falstaff in limning character through dramatic monologue and comic irony.  

In the “Duchess” mordant humor envelopes the haughty but seemingly amiable Duke of Ferrara as he blithely admits to a visiting envoy that he has murdered his wife, the late Duchess, whose portrait hangs behind a curtain in the duke’s gallery.”

The poem is based loosely on Alfonso d”Este, fifth Duke of Ferrara, and his first wife, Lucrezia di Cosimo de’Medici, the 14-year-old daughter of the wealthy and powerful Cosimo de’Medici, whose nouveau riche status, however, would have made his family socially inferior to the aristocratic duke. An actual portrait of the lovely young Lucrezia, painted by Bronzino, shows her holding “a favor to her breast,” and undoubtedly was the inspiration for Browning.

We can assume that in 15th Century Italy, the rulers of the petty states were beyond the law, with each reigning duke or prince being a perfect autocrat with power to inflict the shortest way on anybody in the realm. The Duke would have no reason to guard his words with the envoy.

My argument is going to question the usual motive for the murder, which apparently was carried out by the Duke’s hired men. The late Duchess had, the Duke avers, “a heart too easily made glad.” The Duke resented her universal flirtatious gladness; he resented that “her (smiling) looks went everywhere.” A favor from his own hand, he says, was valued at par with a bough of cherries from a peasant underling. The young and beautiful duchess, the Duke feels, seemed unable to comprehend the monumental privilege in receiving, “a 900-year-old name….as if this were anybody’s gift.”  

The Duchess’ lack of hauteur, her willingness to acknowledge nonentities, grew increasingly irksome to the Duke. Since a reprimand would be beneath him, he gave commands, “her smiles stopped.”

This is believable motive in part, until some final lines raise a question. The envoy is the servant of an unnamed Count, and is visiting the Duchy to negotiate the possible marriage of the Count’s daughter to the widowed Duke.

           The Count your master’s known munificence 

             Is ample warrant that no just pretense 

           Of mine for dowry will be disallowed; 

   Ferrara has expensive tastes, and enjoys commissioning expensive artisans (such as the fictitious “Claus of Innsbruck) to make him pieces.   It also can be assumed that the ruler of any petty state in the fraught and war-torn Italy of the Renaissance will need money for the constant broils with neighbors. Could it be the Duke had his wife murdered not so much because she was insufficiently grateful for the gift of a storied name but rather because the Duke needed to make himself available for a new infusion of dowry money? The Duke gladly will market his 900-year-old name for hard cash. And he makes the pitch right under the gaze of his last duchess who “stands as if alive.”   It is understood by both Duke and Envoy that the Count’s “fair daughter’s self” will have no say in the transaction.  

 

Nighthawks

The diner is in the Village, but according to Jo, the painter’s wife, Hopper has “simplified” the venue, stripping out non-essentials. I’ll say. The sidewalk and street are preternaturally clean, cleaner than in any city except maybe Pyongyang. The backdrop is vaguely surreal. The empty storefront across the street has no signage. In the line of strange windows on the second store, shades are half up, no lights on, apparently unoccupied. No cars on the street, no fire hydrant, no streetlight on the curb.

Inside the harshly lit diner, the counter also has been simplified. Many of the usual accouterments are missing. No stacks of platters, no glass cases for doughnuts and pies, no utensils or condiments. Bare walls; most diners have clocks, advertisements, notices, menus.   It is a surreal diner, with, strangely, two realistic elements.

The coffee urns are fully plumbed, the hot water pipe coming up from the floor connects both urns. The urn on the right is a quarter filled with coffee; the one on the left half filled with hot water. And then there’s the signage over the window. Much has been made of this ad for Phillies cigars.

Hopper’s wife Jo made notes on all his canvasses, but gave no explanation or the cigar ad. Did the artist have a message? My first thought conjured vice president Marshall’s famous quip, made in the U.S. Senate: “What this country needs is a good five cent cigar,” because of the tagline on the ad, “Only 5 cents.” As an arcane afterthought, the cigar pictured, with tapered front and tail, is called a “perfecto” in cigar lingo. And then underneath, inside the diner, sterility and desolation.

So the quartet. What can be inferred from the evidence? Poet Oates has one thing wrong. The woman isn’t smoking a cigarette, although her male companion is (with no ashtray in sight). According to Jo, she is holding a sandwich. It doesn’t look much like a sandwich, and no plate is on the counter. I thought it kind of looked like a ring box, which would have helped out Joyce Carol’s lurid projections. Oates remarks her pallid skin, hair dye, and recently applied lipstick. I was struck by her suspiciously un-anatomical clavicle and her unnaturally long arms.

The hawk-nosed gent by her side is at least ten years older. His face shows weariness and disillusionment, as he listens with marked disinterest to a remark from the white-clad counterman with the improbably cocked hat. A clinician looking at this face might find signs of depression and might see in the hollow cheek and sunken eye the first signs of physical disease.   But the man hasn’t given up on himself, which is demonstrated by his natty tailored suit and knotted tie, the clean cuff and manicured nails

The human on the left border in a non-entity, there to frame the principles. From his posture, his cauliflower ear, the slouch hat, the too-tight suit with a pocket pulled out, we know he’s a faceless mug with no story.

Here’s my take on the couple. They work together in a small Village club that he owns or manages. They may be an item, but it’s a merger based more on pragmatism than on romance. They’re in a rut, know it, and see no way out. He knows the business is failing; she knows her looks are going, and her once bright hopes already are dead. They’re having a cup of black coffee (no creamer or sugar jar) before catching the last bus home.

 

A Year at the National Enquirer

Lantana, FL – I’d been recruited in San Francisco as a staff reporter for the National Enquirer, and had flown out to Florida in my Cessna 150. Most of the staff were Brits, recruited from the Fleet Street tabloids, but a handful of Yanks were on board to cover certain specialties, Government Waste, Medical Breakthroughs, Tales of True Courage, on the theory that native speakers had a better handle on the U.S. bureaucracy. Even so, I already had covered a couple of flying saucers, a pterodactyl sighting in Eagle Pass, Texas, and a profile of the childhood of Jerry Lewis, when the editor called me over.

The research department had found that the Texas town of Perdenales, near Fredericksburg, had reported more extraterrestrial visits than any other American municipality. What the publisher had in mind was an Enquirer exclusive. An extraterrestrial visitor would walk into the downtown…and be treated just like any other tourist, getting the glad hand from friendly citizens and the big Texas Howdy. See, Texas is really a cosmopolitan melting pot, welcoming to all regardless of race, creed or planet of origin. Then after the Big Texas Howdy we’d reveal that the event had been staged just to make that very point about big-hearted Texas…and we’d give everybody a certificate.

My job would be to make the arrangements, hire the aliens, get the costumes, figure out “a sound” for the visitors, and take care of printing, logistics and publicity. After a personal look at the hill country burg of 10,000 I had a few ideas. My aliens would be small and unintimidating, since everybody in town seemed to be driving a pickup with a rifle in the rack. I mulled the idea of having the little visitors walk in wearing cowboy hats but that seemed too hokey. Instead I decided to have them wear full body armor under their silver costumes.

It turned out that body armor capable of stopping a bullet would weigh over 50 pounds. Obviously I would need a couple of little people who were professional stuntmen, from the union in Hollywood. The costumes came from New York, the design based on the look of the silvery Roswell aliens, slender contour, bulbous heads, almond eyes.   The eerie high-pitched electronic wail came from a sound studio in LA.

Two diminutive stuntmen signed up, getting a whopping paycheck for one day’s work, along with plane tickets for Austin and keys to a van to take them to the step-off point just outside the target’s city limits. At dawn, the aliens would walk into town along a two-lane arterial. The landing zone had been prepped, because the week before I had hired a small plane and dropped colored flares in the hills to the west, afterwards alerting the local radio station to possible strange doings, a report duly passed on to listeners.

The stuntmen arrived and tried on the costumes and armor. They were tough, middle-aged, hard-eyed professionals whose livelihood and career depended, not only on their skill and cool courage, but upon their ability to correctly calculate risk. They hefted the armor. It wasn’t sufficient, they figured, to stop a heavy round. They made a brief assessment of the populace. Farmers and ranchers, good old boys and rednecks. And they said no. They wouldn’t be walking into town looking like space aliens, no matter what the payday.

It was failure. And the Enquirer treated failure harshly. Every Friday at the Oyster Bar we heard about the latest round of firings of reporters who couldn’t “keep their socks up.”   I might get a rocket back at work, but I was relieved. By the time the stuntmen turned down the job, I’d become convinced they’d be shot before they even got to the town limits.

I didn’t get fired, but a few months later I got on somewhere else, and was airborne for California. And a few stops later, the Palo Verde Valley Times.

 

 

I’m Your Pal, Di

Really, Diane? You were way too cute with that square.

Sure, he’s a mope

But it’s kind of rich for you, the Barnard girl, to play the Indian card on a harmless boob

He’s just a speck in the iris

I’m your pal, Di, and I’m tellin’ ya

Sometimes when you get a snoot full you put a big stick in your own peeper

If I was one of you literary faces

I’d call it precious

Or like Ginsburg said last night,

“…the preening of a purloined victimhood.”

And excuse me. Princess. You can’t score any buttons?

Let me steer you

There’s nothing for you in Pete’s stash

Hey, you did make me smile at that Bloomingdales’ line. I know where you got that spirit warrior blouse, Di.

Raiment Chandler’s in the Village

Okay. I’m just the trumpet player in this joint.

But I’m your pal, Di

You should listen to the nurses.

Cirrhosis is no joke.

I hate to see you get sloshed in here every night and start putting shade on the tourist mopes.

They ain’t the creeps.

They didn’t bring syphilis to the nations

Or smear smallpox in the blankets.

The real creeps ain’t out slummin’ in the Bowery

Yeah, it was awful what they did to us

I could lay Negro into the same line

But that poor chump never said nothing about Pocahontas,

Or the tom-toms

Or your bow and arrow

That was you jabbering

I’m your pal, Di

All this shade you put on people

It’s a worm eating your guts

It’s gonna eat you up

(The poet Diane Burns, a resident of lower Manhattan and a graduate of Barnard College, died in 1993 at 49 from liver and kidney failure.)

 

Small Game Hunter   Orange County Register

I once hired out as an assassin for a county mosquito abatement district. It was outdoor work, loosely supervised, with results hard to quantify.  The work satisfied the chase instinct, the victims were not highly regarded, and people usually were glad to see us. As happened back then, I was between regular jobs. During one of my aimless strolls I happened by the abatement district's office.  In a flash I saw my short-term future. One of the regular bug swatters had hurt his back in a swamp buggy accident.  The district needed a temp.  I was no entomologist.  There was a test; I crammed at the library. They hired me.

It was January, cold and rainy.  Not a mosquito in sight.  One might think operations would be suspended.  But winter was the district's busiest time: it was Squaminger season, an all-out onslaught on the larvae of the vicious salt marsh mosquito (Ades squaminger) that hatched during the winter months in the marshes north of San Francisco Bay. 

According to literature the district sent to taxpayers, the North Bay would be uninhabitable, for man or dairy cow, if the sanguinary squaminger got airborne in force. The winter job was to slog through the marshes, on foot or in an all-terrain swamp buggy, searching for larvae.



My fellow technicians were a rough-hewn, jovial lot, mostly hailing from the county's farms and orchards.  Everybody found the work congenial, full of variety and amusing mishaps, often involving inadvertent but slapstick fun, such as plunges into dairy waste ponds or tumbles off an ATV.  Generally, nobody quit the service, except on a gurney.  But all the regulars had had back injuries.  Mostly they'd been hurt in swamp buggy accidents, or by stepping into one of the waist-deep submerged cracks in the flooded marshes. A sign on the backdoor exit said, “We have no insurance.”


Never mind.  After the morning meeting, I got to take off by myself in a beige truck, out in the countryside, patrolling for larvae.  As winter turned to spring, I wandered the green hay fields, peeking into runoff ditches.  I spent many days under fleecy clouds footing over the trails that threaded through the briny, molasses-smelling marshes.  I inspected the reservoirs at vineyards, and made a picnic, at the owner's invitation, in the bower reserved for high-end oenophiles.



I also answered service requests.  And if any compensation was needed for winter's rough weather, it came in the genuine smiles of bedeviled, arm-scratching residents when I drove up in one of the district's beige trucks with the big red mosquito logo on the door, and the impressive cannon-like fogger in the back.



I would pop sewer lids, peer into drains and crawl under house to study the sump, until I found the damp breeding hole, and dealt out deadly revenge for the homeowner's every itching bite and reddened welt.

"Do we have to pay for this?” No. "You've already paid for it with your taxes." They were stunned.  A useful county service, and no extra charge.



When it comes to the hardy mosquito, the district was honest to choose the word abatement.  "Control" or “eradication" would be hubristic as well as inaccurate.  Siberian
tigers and the Colton sand fly will go the way of the dodo.  Mosquitoes are here to stay.
(Of course the word "abatement" brings with it the hoary joke that will dog the technician, as it occurs fresh to each new-met wit.  One starts out in any field as an apprentice, then journeyman, eventually becoming a master.  "So that makes you….? ")


Although the district went after all species of mosquitoes (in this venue, a dozen or so, and each with its distinct MO), the main pest species remained the squaminger.  They were always out there, and sometimes the marshes were loaded.  The worst nightmare was to find marsh water filled with casings, which meant the mosquito had pupated and was on the wing. Squaminger eggs are tough and can survive for a decade after being deposited on the fringes of a marsh.  They quietly await the right opportunity, a super high tide that leaves behind pooled water

Mosquito larvae have to breathe air at the surface through a siphon, but will dive out of sight if disturbed.  Squaminger are particularly skittish, easily spooked by a shadow or the vibration of a footfall.  And they can stay submerged for hours. You sneak up on them, as you would on a wily trout. 

Most of my winter days were spent doing reconnaissance in the marsh.  Over my shoulder, a 6-foot stick, with a plastic dipper on the end.  The larvae went into a sample cup for examination later under the microscope in the lab, to make sure we had true squaminger and not some lesser breed.  Under the microscope, the larvae have big brown eyes, reminiscent of harp seals. 

As everybody probably already knows, only the female mosquito takes a blood meal.  Not for food, but for the protein needed to make eggs.  Squaminger, unlike some less aggressive species, lay eggs only once a year.  She has one shot to reproduce, and she's on an all-out blood drive.  The ferocious hard-biting mosquito can travel 20 miles on a hunt, homing on traces of carbon dioxide emitted by mammals. (That's why the light traps set to monitor mosquito populations also include a chunk of dry ice.)

The district had a manager and a couple of bureaucrats, but the real overseer was the foreman, an erstwhile Marine, who enjoyed organizing the assaults in the marshes. The weapons depended on how quickly we discovered the larvae after the hatch.  If the larvae were in early "instars" or stages, we could punish them with two fairly benign correctives.  From the back of the tracked swamp buggies we dropped pellets containing a killed bacteria that poisoned the mosquito gut, but was otherwise harmless to aquatic life. Or we could spread a liquid containing a hormonal growth regulator that prevents mosquito larvae from pupating into normal maturity. 

But if the larvae already had pupated, it was too late for gentle measures.  Pupae don't feed, but merely gather their forces for the final morph into flying insect. We had to use Golden Bear, light petroleum that put rainbow sheen on the marsh and suffocated the pupae by clogging their breathing tubes.

The eight-wheeled swamp buggies, called Argos, lumbered off in every direction.  We all carried hand-held radios, so the Marine could coordinate. I started flying a green flag from my dipper stick, which I had attached to my Argo.  That turned out to be a popular addition and a morale booster, to see flags whipping in the wind as the Argos plunged through the swamp. The kepi cap liner was my own invention, and while less popular, was more practical, since it was a sort of cloth snood that went under the issued brown cap.  The result looked kind of like Legionnaire's headwear, and more importantly kept cancer-inducing rays off the ears and neck. 
After marshaling for an attack, we would disperse again for more recon. Marsh and creek foot surveillance quickly became my specialty.  Theoretically I was looking for new sources of mosquito larvae.  Actually I just enjoyed taking a walk in the pretty countryside, though I usually found mosquitoes.  While in my district uniform I even was authorized (by the state health and safety code) to trespass on private property.  I could stroll a farmer's back forty legally, although I was discreet. I’d be hiking the high road through the hayfields when I'd spot a smudge of greenery I hadn't noticed before.  A vernal pool.  Some bit of latent work ethic, some new curiosity engendered by a seed of entomological knowledge, made me detour over.  Lo, mosquitoes.  A new source for the database.  If a person is shown how to see something, he may see it. 

Squaminger season ended with the district's annual Stuck Awards banquet, which recognized and roasted the technician who had managed to get his vehicle stuck in the most outlandish way.  The trophy itself was a large fork stuck into something resembling cow flop.  A second tribute, the Refresh My Memory award (a shower nozzle over a plastic brain) went to the person who had got "the most lost.” Josh or Mike usually won the Stuck award.  They were young technicians who operated machines at full throttle until something happened. I got stuck many times.  One time my swamp buggy threw a track, flooded and sank.  I drove quad runners into ditches.  My district pickup had to be hauled out of a hole in a hay field.  But in this competition, I wasn't even close. 

If there had been a Blind Pig Award, for the technician who discovered the most new sources by pure chance it would be on my mantle right now.

 

Forgetful Bachelor’s Greeting during this Special Time

Merry Yuletide Greetings for the Holiday Season.

May you enjoy a Prosperous and Happy New Year.

This seems an opportune moment to wish you a very Happy Birthday, whether this important annual event already has been celebrated or remains a future calendar item.

May this find you in good fettle on Mother’s Day.  Ditto Father’s Day. 

Your Weddings and Anniversaries have meant so much to everyone, and these occasions should be memorialized here

 Please accept at this time my sincere condolences for your loss.  

 If you get sick, I wish you a speedy recovery.

I’d also like to tender my heartfelt congratulations on your Promotion, Inheritance, Book Contract, or other good fortune. 

 And I hope you will be my Valentine.

 

Season’s Greetings

Merry Christmas

Feliz Navidad

Hendrit Pasho

Happy Hanukkah

Allah Akbar

Naye sal ti HAERDKIK

Subhhamnayenh

Heri Za Kwanzaa

Nguzo Xaba

Ejaaza Sae eeda

Sincere regards,

Please post this on the refrigerator and refer to it at the appropriate times.

 

 

Chuckwalla Day Parade coverage excerpts from “Mad Mike and Nice Mandy,” KZZS, the Rattler

 

 

"These are the kids from Emma Golden Middle School, Mandy.  They look like dwarfs leaving the mine.  They look like a bunch of hunchbacks."

"Those are their book bags."

"Is that why they're bent over double?"

"They're texting, Mike."

"It should be called the Round Middle School.  Those kids are fat. They all look like Hansel after a week with the witch."

"Here's the reason."

"What? The McDonald's float?  Ha!  Folks, welcome the Hamburglar and...what's the clown's name?"

"Ronald."

Uhm, are they proud sponsors, Mandy?  No.  Thank God.  Look, it is a witch."

Wrong again, Mike.  That's Healthy McMom and her daughter.  They promo the oatmeal and yogurt parfait."

"Hey kid.  Your mom is poisoning you."

"Geez, Mike.

"Kid!  She's a witch.  Her name's Samantha."

"Mike."

"No really.  She flies around town on a broom.  With a black cat."

 

  

How Duncan was not left behind   from the Berkeley Barb

 

The “No Child Left Behind” initiative put me in mind of my old college pal Duncan, who attended San Francisco State for four years without ever enrolling.  Duncan’s wasn’t left behind, even though he’d been a high school slacker and a scholastic zero.

           

We’d attended the same urban mega-high (Go Weasels!) but Duncan came a year behind me and ran with a different set: a bunch of slouching, non-verbal slackers who disdained school routine.  They hung out at Hasty Tasty, drove ten-year-old beaters, and had poor classroom attendance. Most of them came from a Bad Home Environment.  So I was kind of surprised to see him show up at San Francisco State.  But SF State isn’t Stanford; a lot of kids manage to get accepted without having been standouts in high school.

 

I’d seen him around campus and in the cafeteria but one day he turned up at the office of the Daily Golden Gater, the school paper, where I was one of the editors.  He said he wanted to volunteer as a reporter.  Most of the students on the school rag had signed up for credit.  But we were glad to take volunteers.  It never occurred to me to ask Duncan if he had enrolled.  His writing sample looked something like:

 

“...I would like to report sports specially basketball and soccer or anything else such as football and tenis...”

 

I took pride in those days in honing the writing skills of new reporters with an hour’s tutorial. My method worked for recent arrivals from Iran who barely spoke English and I saw no impediment to bringing Duncan up to speed.

 

“Here are the rules,” I said.  “Say something in one breath.  Write it down.  A capital letter goes at the front, a period at the end.’ Or. 

 

“Name something.  Say what it does.  Put a period.” And. 

 

“Use only periods and question marks for punctuation; nothing else.” 

 

And so on.  I started out by sending him to radio club meetings and to some of the uncontroversial lectures, and within a week Duncan was turning in usable copy.  Only later did he tell me his real reason for taking an interest in journalism.  He needed a place to stay, and he’d noticed that the Gater office kept the lights on late. We never locked the office storage room.  After the janitor had closed up at night Duncan would sneak down the hall to the machines and have a candy bar for dinner, if there weren’t any stale doughnuts left in the coffee mess.

 

I learned this later.  After 12 years of social promotion and a mercy diploma Duncan hadn’t much of a high school transcript to show a college admissions board.  He knew better than to even try to take the SAT.  After graduation his mom told him to clear out and get a job. But after looking around at the likely employment fate of his Hasty Tasty comrades, Duncan decided he’d better go to college.  SF State was the closest one, and on the first day of the Fall semester he arrived on the M car.

 

He had school spirit. Duncan always wore either an SF State tee shirt or an SF State cotton sweater.  Not first-hand attire, though.  He’d bought them at a garage sale.  Like most others on campus, he always carried a stack of textbooks.  This was a clue I admit I missed.  I’d glanced at his pile of books one time, and I saw right away something was not right.  I’d lifted the cover of one of his books, a junior high science text.  Stamped inside was a rectangular notice saying the book had been overstock at the public library. But it didn’t hit me what this meant

 

Later he told me that he had bought all his textbooks at library book sales, for fifty cents or a buck apiece. The books initially were for camouflage.  But over time, while sitting around the cafeteria drinking coffee, he’d nosed into them.  Over four years he’d picked up a little about biology, geography, economics, history, and half a dozen other subjects.

 

For his first few weeks as a non-student, Duncan had just roamed around the campus to get the feel.  He attended the free lectures and concerts at noon.  Pretty soon he realized he could sit in on the bigger general ed classes, things like Intro to Psychology, or Art Appreciation 1A, which were held in the amphitheaters.  The professors didn’t take attendance and had no idea if a non-student was among the sea of faces.  Duncan’s confidence rose, and the next semester he audited classroom lectures.  If the prof took attendance, Duncan waited until a name got called for the third time.  Then he raised his hand; the prof raised an eyebrow, girls giggled, and the lecture proceeded.

 

As an editor I had in my gift a paying job, that of delivering the Gater every morning to kiosks around the campus.  Duncan asked if he could do it; I gave him the paperwork.  However he filled in the spaces apparently went over with accounting, and he started getting a paycheck.  He also wangled a part time job in the athletics department throwing towels.  He’d volunteered to cover night games for the Gater, so he knew all the coaches.

 

With his jobs he could afford a tiny room somewhere near the campus.  At first he walked to save carfare; later he got a bicycle.  In his sophomore year he flourished.  He got frontpage bylines for covering both sports and the burgeoning political dissent on campus.  He became active himself in campus politics, but I can’t remember now whether he was a Maoist, a Trotskyite, a Socialist Worker, or a Republican.  I know he took care not to get arrested, since the cops would have put him down as an off-campus agitator, although Duncan spent more time on campus than anyone I knew.

 

During his junior year he gave up delivering the Gater to take a bigger job.  Before the Internet, students who needed term papers written for them went to outfits like Bullshit, Inc., which had branches in Berkeley and San Francisco.  Bullshit hired dozens or writers to churn out papers on any subject.  The company guaranteed a “C.”  Duncan hired on, and became one of BI’s top producers.

 

He told me his method.  Most of his clients were jocks or biz ed majors.  Their English and history professors weren’t expecting much.  Duncan went to the juvenile section in the public library for simple biographies and histories aimed at pre-teens.  He borrowed large chunks with little rewriting.  For the references he cited scholarly works from the library card catalog.  Usually his papers pulled a “B.”

 

His living conditions also had improved.  At some demo he’d met a coed and they wound up living in a commune in the Haight.  Duncan told me he hadn’t confessed to her that he’d never been enrolled at SF State until years after they were married.

 

College joys can’t last forever.  At the end of his fourth year at State, Duncan joined his adopted class at graduation ceremonies wearing the mortarboard and gown, although of course he didn’t go up on stage.  He’d already decided to confer upon himself a baccalaureate in English Literature.  He figured that a BA in English Lit is so intrinsically worthless that no future employer would bother to check the claim on his resume.

 

So that’s how my friend Duncan was not left behind.  On the basis of his alleged degree and some newspaper clips, he got a job right away downtown as a copywriter in an ad firm.  He’s now a political consultant living in Sacramento.

 

 

 

In Praise of Slow Trains

Too proud to be an Earthling.  I don’t want to be like you, and put a lot of smut in the air while I roam.  According to ambiance mavens, trains pass less soot per passenger mile than either airplane or eight.  At cocktail parties in Prius Nation we encourage each other to use the tracks and trams of public rail.  We tsk-tsk about Congressional catamites' lack of enthusiasm for Amtrak, and deplore the fiscal retentive who would sidetrack transcontinental trains. Trains, yes, we say.

But I couldn’t help wondering: is long-haul Amtrak really a stand-in for my 1.4 liter 30 miles per gallon Japanese Seppuku?  Or for an airliner huffing Jet A? 

So I experimented with a crosscountry rail journey. Sacramento to New York, round trip, Three nights each way sleeping bolt upright in couch.  I stipulate.  Any travel writer could do the 3,000 miles easily, by renting a more or less comfortable sleeping vault that includes meals in the dining salon.  That travel hack is not the cheese-paring pensioner.  The transcontinental Amtrak roomette adds a large or more to the senior’s otherwise comfortable basic coach fare.  That’s three times airfare.  I can’t afford to go green at that tariff. So the test  

If I could suffer sitting up all night in couch, I could afford a lot more leisurely long distance domestic rail: support steel wheels, spare the biosphere.

I’m no tyro on Amtrak.  But short hauls.   For instance, Sacramento to Yosemite, which requires a transfer at Merced to a connecting plague ship (bus) for the final three-hour approach to the national park.  I bring full camping kit and a hand truck so I can overnight at Camp Four, the stop of choice for rock climbers, gap year Europeans, and the odd thrifty senior. 

The train is good enough for these short hops; the bus, no.  The Yosemite plague ship often is crowded with sick people, mostly the restaurant employees who will be cooking your dinner.  On a bus, you’re trapped.  The problem with public transportation is the public.  So, I favor destinations served by rail.  A train with observation lounge, dining salon, full bar, and enough room so that you can escape your random undesirable seatmate.

Usually for budget domestic travel, my prejudice is for the West.  California, north of the 38th parallel.  But now I’m headed cardinal East on the Zephyr for two nights, Sacramento to Chicago, and then segue for 24 hours on the Lakeshore Limited into Penn Station.

The experiment showed what this duffer could handle.  Three nights of contortionist discomfort, four days without a shower, too much.  Twenty-four hours I could do.  That gives me a thousand miles of track in any direction out of Sacramento except West.  That was the science.

But subjectively, what about the experience of crossing the nations by train?  The granite grandeur of the mountain nation, the Sierra, the Rockies, and so on.  Not much to see in the dreary heartland.  Syrup nation stretches from Colorado to Illinois.  Amber waves of corn tassels.  Pulses standing tall for Coca Cola and Frito Lay.  Because of flooding around Omaha, trains were being diverted south, meaning that Amtrak had to share the detour with extra freight traffic.  Every minute we were being shouldered onto a siding by Buffet’s Burlington Northern to make room for a mile long cola of carbon baguettes, coal to light the lights of Broadway.  For a thousand miles: corn and coal cars.

Amtrak Toilets

We’ve already heard enough about crosscountry train travel.  Instead of vaporing about scenery, or lucubrating about pressing the carotid of the nations, let’s go right to it.  Amtrak toilets.  No putting a fine point here.  It’s the Third World.  That is, in coach.  Each Amtrak car has an attendant.  The attendant in the sleeping car gets gratuities.  His select cohort tends to be refined, well off, and interested in grooming.  The toilets in sleeper are kept clean.  The coach car attendant is supposed to tidy up the jakes in steerage, but can you blame him if he’d rather leave that distasteful job for a cleaning crew of recent immigrants at the terminus?   The closets in coach are under heavy pressure and after a few days, without much supervision…well.   They get clogged, back up, and even overflow.  Then they’re tagged Out of Service, which puts more pressure on the remaining commodes.

Partly, it’s design.  The coach toilets on the Lakeside Limited are shallow stainless steel basins with a three-inch flap valve and ring flushing.  On the Zephyr the bowls are a little deeper and evacuated by a startling whoosh of vacuum suction.  Both designs tend to clog when challenged by a surfeit of paper product.   An inconspicuous notice in muted colors asks passengers to refrain from discarding paper towels, newspapers and diapers in the toilet.  It would be better if no paper at all went in.  It would be better to take a hint from Mexico.  NO PAPER IN TOILET.  Large red letters.  A trash bag nearby.

I know.  Fastidious norteamericanos are too prissy for this, without some North Korean style re-education.  But ideally, the Amtrak traveler would bag up his papel hygienico in a Ziploc for deposit it in the trash.  Amtrak plumbing can’t handle paper.   If passengers accepted this reality the train crappers could survive a three-day trip. 

I’ll swaddle this next suggestion in opaque euphemism.  If one encounters a completely unserviceable and unspeakable commode, he must fend for himself.  While avoiding eye contact with the toilet, he should close the top lid.  From mid-morning Tiffin he has reserved the cardboard box that held the coffee and muffin.  Line this box with a plastic bag and set it on the lid.  After Lamaze, wrap the issue in the plastic bag and place it in the cardboard coffee cup, also saved.  Cap securely and drop in trash.  Many students, particularly the Euros, have traveled and know the reality of third world plumbing.  For them, a hint is all that’s needed.

Another simple expedient.  I used my cell phone to take a few snaps of one example of egregious marksmanship, and invited the conductor to watch the slideshow.  The car attendant got the word and became busy.  If passengers posted such art to a train site such as www.train.com, along with car number, date and hour, one of the drawbacks of the transcontinental train might be abated.

I used the loo closet for bathing, pretty much as described in R.L. Stevenson’s account of his transcontinental experience on the emigrant train in the 1870s.  He used a wash rag and a tin basin.  I used a wash rag in a quart Ziploc.  I refined his method a little by lining my underwear with paper towels, and changing the towels daily.  (In the famous author’s day, it was possible for transcontinental passengers to sleep lying down in coach by buying wooden planks from platform hawkers.  The planks were laid transversely across the seats to make a sleeping platform.)

Some of these water closets are tiny; it‘ll be hard to maneuver during the bath.  Also the locks often are broken on the sliding door.  And remember, we’re now a nation of heavies.  Once I slid open a seemingly unoccupied WC to find it fully occupied by a porcine pilgrim whose bulk prevented his being able to latch the door.  I’m a former police reporter, and hardened.  Someone else might have been damaged.

By the way, several gaffers of my acquaintance thought American passenger trains still dump human offal on the tracks.  That practice, so interesting to Pullman passengers of the mid Twentieth Century, and so disgusting to the gandy dancers, has been discontinued. 

Most of my fellow pilgrims were duffers.  So I heard a lot of complaining.  Mostly about the train being late.  Of course the conductor blamed everything on Acts of the Gods in Nebraska.  He said he had never known any train to be as late as this one.  Usually, it kept time like a metronome, he said.  I think passengers would feel better if Amtrak didn’t bother publishing a schedule.  A schedule raises unrealistic expectations. The train gets there when it gets there. 

I also saw a bunch of young Euros on gap year sightseeing via Amtrak.  Cute foreign accent, a cosmopolitan cut a lot hipper than we are.  And the biscuit and cheese picnic from the backpack.  Copy that.  I loaded up on trail mix, cheese, apples and oranges.  I also matched the hatch on the wine.  Amtrak snack bar charges five for a tiny bottle of plonk made at a winery right up the road from my milieu in Northern California.  At discount liquor I found the same four ounce bottle offered for one-fifty. I brought along a cellar. Train rules prohibit being your own sommelier in coach, but the car attendant didn’t seem suspicious.

Amtrak does take a tough line on smoking, and a stern voice on the intercom alleges that police will yank violators off the train at the next road crossing, if caught puffing in the vestibule.  The conductor does alert the pariahs when the train will be stopping long enough for a smoke break.  Step off for a smoke or a breath of fresh air, he says.  That’s to smile.  The pariahs foul the platform in front of every car.  In a better world, the dining car servers, who act like military police anyway during their usual duties, would herd the pariahs to the downwind verge of the platform.

Slow trains, but where’s the praise?   I praise slow trains because, despite caveats and quibbles, they’re better than no trains.  There will never be high-speed rail between Oakland and Omaha.  High-speed rail in America is a chimera. Too costly, it’ll never pay like freight.  But the nations need an east-west train, as an option for wandering youth and leisured senior.  In many weary wasteland burgs, the train station is the only portal to the world.  I say, embrace what we have and accept it for what it is:  an early Twentieth Century relic much like the rail system in Mexico and the Southern World. Because it has to share a single track with profitable freight, passenger trains will always be shuttled to a siding while the coal bunkers roll through. The Zephyr will never run on time.

Nor will it ever boast the luxury of the Orient Express. But I say we could make the transcontinental train a lot more comfortable if we made it even slower.  Forget the timetable.  This isn’t travel suitable for the impatient obligations of tightly-scheduled salary men. It’s for the unhurried loafer. Perhaps long stops at suitable stations for a walk and a meal away from the steaming pariahs, while the johns are washed and drained, and the bar replenished (a liquor shortage struck the homebound train west of Denver).  Maybe an opportunity to RON (remain overnight) in a hotel at some midpoint.  What’s the hurry?  Leave the railroad watch at home.  You’re on the slow train. It gets there when it gets there.

 

                   

The Green Zone cafe

 

I ride my bicycle to the coffee shop every morning. Coffee shop isn’t right. It’s the Green Zone Café, which has an Early Bird Special, good between 6 and 7 a.m. It’s a barista-drizzled cup of Columbian Joe, sustainably raised, organically grown by happy campesinos, on offer for the price of a buck. The customer brings his own reusable cup, over which the barista places a metal filter filled with freshly ground beans out of the sack.

 

So I’m sitting at a table outside in the wan sunshine when a black Lexus pulls into the space directly in front of me. A tinted barely legal windshield but I can indistinctly make out the driver, a woman, on her cell phone, sitting and talking, and letting the car idle. A little bit of a morning breeze, and I’m assuming she doesn’t want to turn off the car’s heater while she’s talking. But it’s annoying, since I’m getting a whiff of exhaust fumes.

 

I’m prejudging and stereotyping this woman. Lexus. Tinted windows. I’m thinking privileged, cosseted princess of Tech, trailing clouds of entitlement. But I notice something that’s not in sync. On the front bumper, a bumper sticker: “Too Proud to be an American,” printed over an American flag design. “Too Proud to be an American” is funny, but one would expect to see that sentiment on a different vehicle, one that also sported suggestions to “Question Authority,” and to “Resist!” with the clenched fist.

 

Here’s something else. I’m sitting at a slight angle to the Lexus, and I can see another sticker over the gas gap.   Can’t quite read it, but I have a pair of long-distance driving glasses in my pack. “Your Son’s Blood Goes Here” it says, over the gas cap.

 

The car door opens, and emerges a young and beautiful Asian woman, dressed in suede boots, flowing skirt, and silk blouse imprinted with a design something like the tattoos on the barista’s arm. She heads straight for the café, still talking earnestly into the phone.

 

My thinking is this: “Too Proud to be an American” is an inside joke. A friend who lives in Berkeley found the sticker at the Peoples’ Park collective, and thought it would be amusing to put it on her friend’s Lexus. A Lexus IS too proud. But the other bumper sticker isn’t friendly. A San Francisco anarchist slapped it on her car while she participated in a fun run in Golden Gate Park. He was attaching the stickers with super glue to all the high-end cars at the event, to remind possible plutocrats of the collateral costs of gasoline.

 

Lexus. Asian woman. Could be racial tones as well. I’m in no position to stereotype. My own vehicle smacks of the Axis too. An ancient Schwinn I got at Repurposeopolis for five bucks.

 

 

 

The Burning Bush

 

Like everyone in spiritual crisis, I fasted, wept and prayed, paced the room, sighed with forced breath, and at last opted for the vision quest to find the answers on a desert mountaintop. Upon arrival I dropped a Purple Owsley that I’d been carrying around in my wallet since the Summer of Love.

 

After awhile a whirlwind swirled up out of a flaming bush and God appeared. The sky burned crimson and then turned into a shimmering translucent platinum aurora surrounding the Celestial presence. I was thinking of God along the lines of a stern and jealous patriarch or genocidal psychopath who kept busy smiting the Samsonites. But in appearance God looked a lot like Betty Crocker. Kind of a prim and well put together matron with a youthful sunny disposition that radiated beneficence. The pristine desert air had become infused with the odor of freshly baked cookies

 

God’s smile took the tension right out of my neck. “’In his own image?” God said. “It’s a metaphor. Like the many mansions thing. I save the robe and beard for the real sinners. For you, the usual unreliable, faithless lying hypocrite, I’m a female homemaker. That’s the default position for you people.”

 

‘I’ve been troubled lately,” I said.

 

“Mary Jane Cunningham” God said. “Boy do I get bored with the middle-aged adultery fantasy.”

 

“I’ve become possessed. All I’m asking is to take complete control of her.”

 

“Your neighbor’s wife. On my list that’s a non-covetable item. Besides, she’s not exactly a looker. And I could tell you a thing or two about that lady. But okay. Two hours.”

 

“Two hours….that’s not a not a lot of time.”

 

“Two hours with you will save her marriage. Anything else, as If I didn’t know?”

 

“Well, it’s April 14th…”

 

“Not a sparrow falls….or a duck or a pigeon either, not only here, but in the entire bird land of the cosmos…. I know what day it is.   Did you think about itemizing your commodities loses by backdating the puts?”

 

“No! Jesus Christ. Excuse me.   But that’s brilliant…. that’s perfect. Why didn’t I think of that?   Say, while you’re here, what do you think about BlackRock ‘s emerging market EFT that tracks the investable market index…”

 

“I am a tolerant and forgiving God that shows a lot of compassion for mortal failings. But don’t push your luck.”

 

 

“Have your paper and pencil handy…”

 

You ask, the strongest recollection of the effect of media on my childhood? It came upon me when I was six-years-old and I realized the connection between commercial radio and the US Postal Service.

 

Quaker Oats sponsored a radio program called “Sgt. Preston of the Yukon.” I wasn’t clear where exactly the Yukon might be, but it had snow and ice, sled dogs, rough trails, and desperate characters whose depredations could only be thwarted by the Royal Mounted Police. I was a devotee of radio drama, my favorites being the Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, Superman, the Green Hornet, and the Shadow. I showed an early preference for vigilante justice, but Sgt Preston was an exception, a sworn lawman wearing a red coat, highly competent in challenging environments, but who couldn‘t rely on supernatural powers acquired in the mysterious Far East, or on the planet Krypton.

 

One day, the announcer during the commercial interruption to Sgt Preston’s latest adventure, made an amazing offer. If I got my mom to buy a package of Quaker Oats, I would find inside a deed to “one square inch” of the Yukon, the snowy venue of my hero. I would own it! My own piece of the Yukon.

 

Nobody at my house ate oatmeal; we all had cold cereal for breakfast. But at my instigation, she bought a package….and it was true. I was a land baron.   When I happened to remember this long-forgotten incident, I did a bit of research.

It was in 1952 that a Madison Ave. copywriter came up with the idea of putting a land deed in every box of Quaker cereal. The company execs said, “You gotta be kidding,” but they went along, and bought a 19-acre plot of worthless Yukon tundra for $1,000. This parcel was subdivided into 21 million one-inch parcels, and the “deeds” were printed for under $9,000. It turned out to be an advertising sensation. Every box sold as fast as the garishly colored deeds could be printed.

 

Amusingly, later on, after Sgt. Preston got canceled, former six-year-olds, and their lawyers, began asking how much their property had increased in value. Apparently, they were serious. Suits were threatened. But Quaker had protected itself by not registering any of the titles, so the deeds were without value. I’d been gyped (I hope that ancient word is okay; it comes from “gypsy,” and I mean no disrespect to any ethnic group.) But the point is that in my small-fry life I became alert to the offer of what then were called “premiums.” Send in a cereal box top with a dime Scotch-taped to it and you would get back, in your own mailbox, something that sounded to be quite valuable and interesting, not swampland, but a genuine decoder ring, for instance. From Ralston–Purina, mailing address Checkerboard Square, St. Louis, Missouri (what a sensationally romantic name)

 

I got a Roy Rogers straight shooter combination magnifying glass and compass that glowed in the dark. My memory has fogged a little; it might have been another Western hero, Hopalong maybe, but not the Lone Ranger, because from him I got (after he had received my Cheerios box top) a silver bullet whistle. Now I remember. Hopalong sent me a cow skull neckerchief slide, like the one he wears, if his is made of plastic. I also remember sending away for and receiving a Superman parachute rocket and a Smilin’ Jack (from the Terry and the Pirates program) flying saucer pistol.

 

This was a world of media empowerment for a six-year-old. I, through my living room radio, was connecting with exotic places such as Checkerboard Square and Battle Creek, Michigan. I had to put together every deal myself, find an envelop and stamp in a dresser drawer, write the address in my own wobbly hand, deplete my allowance by a dime, ply a dangerous pair of scissors to snip the box top, and then walk my completed work out to the mailbox on the curb, remembering to flip up the red flag.

 

In a week, maybe two, I’d reap my reward. The disappointment in learning that the reward was just another bit of cheap trash really made no difference. I felt enlarged. I was living beyond the constraints of a tiny house in a tract. I was engaged with the world. And of course I was a land baron in the Yukon, which, I was pretty sure, was somewhere north of Stockton.

 

 

 

Some people I know have stuck to their last, but Thank God they lost everything in the down tick. I stayed in cash all along, when not entirely outside the money economy.  See you at the party.

 

 

Copyright 1996 The Times Mirror Company

 Los Angeles Times February 27, 1996, Tuesday, Home Edition

HEADLINE: CALIFORNIA ALBUM;
A GROWER'S SAGA OF ROOTS BEARS FRUIT;
PUBLISHERS WOULDN'T LOOK AT BRUNO BUTI'S NOVEL ABOUT BOOTLEGGING FAMILY, SO HE PUBLISHED IT AND SOLD COPIES AT WINERIES.
BYLINE: By PHIL GARLINGTON
DATELINE: CLOVERDALE, Calif.





 And now, for the encouragement of wannabe novelists facing the harsh reality of New York publishing, the story of 73-year-old prune grower Bruno Buti. 

 After suffering a wake-up call heart attack in 1988, Buti (pronounced
"booty") decided that what he really wanted to do was write a novel.

And he had an idea, the escapades of his father and cousin, Italian bootleggers who operated secret stills in the 1920s in Crow Canyon northeast of San Francisco. 

 Buti wrote the 90,000-word book in longhand, using the hood of his Jeep for a desk, in between stints of pruning his orchard. With "Rumbling Barrels" finally completed, Buti felt that he had a winner. The novel had adventure and drama, and treated a heretofore-neglected segment of U.S. history, Prohibition in the West. 

 

Then he came up against the hard reality of the publishing world. "Nobody would even look at my manuscript," Buti said. "Editors told me it was a waste of time even to submit a query letter. They told me publishers never read the slush pile submissions."

One editor whom Buti managed to reach spelled out the cold truth: "We don’t publish novels," the editor said. "We publish authors." And publishing houses were already flooded with manuscripts from established writers. The editor's advice: "Print 100 copies on your own dime for your friends and forget it." 


"But he didn't know Bruno. In September, Buti had 2,500 copies printed at his own expense. By December, he had sold all of them. And now he's selling out a second printing. 

His secret? He sells his hardbound novel of Prohibition antics, for $20 a copy, at area wineries. 

 "I started with a couple of local Italian wineries," Buti said. "There's lots of traffic, and people are drinking wine, having a good time. I got the managers to put the book in the gift shops."



Buti had other inventive marketing ploys. Cloverdale, 60 miles north of Sam Francisco, has no bookstore. Buti sells his book at Ace Hardware, where the manager agreed to set up a display along the front aisle. According to store employees, the first two shipments have sold out. 

 Buti also made a deal with a major fruit grower to distribute a new, orange-flavored prune. "I give out samples of the prune at shopping malls and push my book at the same time," Buti said.

Although "Rumbling Barrels" is fiction, Buti said, it is based on the real adventures of his bootlegging father and particularly his cousin, who not only operated moonshine stills but hijacked trucks. "They were a tough bunch," Buti
said, "and so were a lot of the crooked federal officers."

 

Buti said that his father was frequently shaken down by revenue agents and that once the 12-year-old Bruno was told to hold a shotgun on two agents while his father made a getaway. Buti said the hooch that his father distilled in remote canyons was an Italian variation of corn moonshine. But it came to be called "Jackass Brandy" because of the mules and donkeys that the bootleggers used to haul sugar and mash to the hidden stills. 

The novel-writing game, which looked so bleak at the beginning, has turned out to be fun, Buti said.

"They did everything they could to discourage me, but I'm not some starving artist in a garret. I've got the wherewithal to print my own book. And I figured, if New York can do it, I can do it."



 

 

Hello Wall

By Orin Wimbly

You’re like the wall John Cash made famous

Blank. Unmarked. Anonymous

Greeting the opened motel door

And the dirty carpet on the floor

Mums the word

You’ll never tell

Hello wall

You’re here when I rouse

Myself from bed

When I go you hold the secret dread

Bare, taupe, just one window

The post, the beam and lintel

I’d prefer you neat, without the picture

Of her

Without the candlelight,

A clean slate, tabula raza, a deaf

Mute with an empty glass

Nothing in it

No confessions, or drunken secrets

Too true to be denied

Dripping down your stucco side

The words drip down and disappear

Tell the wall, it has no ear

 

 

Use Swoon, Moon, and Jejune

By Owin Wimbley

(A pass made especially execrable by “faucet and profit” and “tasteth and mayest.” Jejune here in the sense of naïve and simplistic. )

I swoon for a love like a leaking faucet

Love not for sale and not for profit

An un-coerced, unfettered, free devotion

Untouched by charm, spell or potion

But tasting sweet, as honey tasteth

You’ll sit with me, for sure thou mayest

And we’ll swell a ditty to the lunar orb

Til sweet surfeit can no more absorb

Our jejune souls far from despair

No swooning heart here needs repair

Well plight a troth that’s everlasting

Please look like one from central casting…

 

Doggerel for the Saps that Salute 
by Orin Wimbly

I pledge allegiance to the Republic
Conditionally, of course, not like a butt lick
But dependent on the Republic’s good behavior
Unlike your Steve or Stephanie Decatur
At council, school board, public meeting
Tap the stomach, skip the bleating
No hand to eye or palm to breast
No colored gimcrack on the vest
A showy pledge, an oath of fealty
Seems redundant, Tweedledee
Hey! My Samland cred is all in order
But stand, salute?  Why should I bother?
I’m loyal to that mossy chick out in the harbor,
Who calls me traitor? except Ann Coulter
I support the troops right up through captain
Major and above?  I’m not so certain
The assertions?  Lies.  It doesn‘t matter
So we‘re divisible by pundit chatter
Liberty for all.  It’s highly rated
By those not yet incarcerated
A blind law for manse or tenement?
One size fits all; a noble sentiment
But Justice? It’s never much in fashion
And better so, to ‘scape a lashing
Yet the Pledge still had some holes
Repaired by Congress and three syllables.
Under God? Our Nation? Yes, since Fifty-six
We’re one of God’s more iffy picks
Considering our predilection to go hunting
In lands where all the gals wear bunting.
We’ve overreached, so say the editors
By killing wedding guests with Predators
The Stripes unfurling or’ desert sands
An up-armored Republic, for which it stands.
“May she always be right,” that old wheeze.
“Gentlemen, I give you my country.”  Please.

(Editor's note:  Ironically, Wimbly now serves the colors in Afghanistan as a civilian code talker for a special ops element of the Army's 10th Mountain Division.)

 

 

Head Cases   a Chuckwalla Wire Leaders in Motion interview

You snore,” my soon-to-be ex-wife said to me. Snoring was not the proximate issue for the divorce. She gave me a list of reasons, and snoring wasn’t even on it. I didn’t think I did snore, but I left the tape recorder on one night. The doc at the VA said it was mild sleep apnea, and prescribed a CPAP. It’s a little fan with hose and face mask which delivers “continuous positive air pressure” to keep the uvula fluttering

I slept a lot better. I imagined as I drifted off that the CPAP (renamed by me as “Better Breather”) hummed a soft lullaby,” kind of “lubabubbbabaonareereebop…” Also, sometimes, it added motivational guidance: “Now you’re fully relaxed…everything’s going to be okay…your mind is…empty…completely empty…vapid…”

My son dropped by, and, there not being much to talk about, we watched television. “You’re humming,” my son said.   I was not conscious of humming. “Yeah,” he said, “Luabbalubbalubba…” A little later he said, “You’re talking to yourself.” That was less worrisome. It’s not unusual for a person my age to talk to the television.


Even so. The next day at the mall I suddenly noticed I was talking out loud. Quietly, but audibly. Maybe that wasn’t so good. We live in a surveillance state where everything is monitored. I’d just read an article about a therapist of the client-centered humanist school who was trying an adaptive therapy for schizophrenics. He had them wear a Bluetooth when they went out. A pathological outburst, when yelled into a bud mike, could just be one side of a business negotiation.

I picked up an antique Bluetooth device from the Salvation Army and started wearing it outdoors. If I did mutter and mumble it just meant I was on the phone. The Bluetooth was disconnected but it wasn’t long before I started getting messages. The Betelgeuse Alliance was gathering their war pods. I wasn’t concerned by this, even though a landing appeared imminent. A person my age expects trouble.

But soon the Bluetooth changed its tone. “Why don’t you listen to me at night? Why is it always Better Breather you put on over your night cap? You don’t think I’m good enough? You think Better Breather knows everything?   I wouldn’t trust that silver-tongued Svengali. No telling what kind of lies he’s putting in your mind.”

That night instead of the usual soothing meditation Better Breather started getting huffy. “You don’t think I know what that thing has been saying about me? You can’t trust junk out of the Sally bin. I have your interests at heart. That creature is not good thing for your head.”

Just to see what would happen, the next night I put on both Better Breather and Bluetooth. I didn’t get any sleep. My ex-wife isn’t interested in a reconciliation, but said she’d meet me for coffee.

 

The Breatharian House   Chuckwalla Wire

The placard in front of the ramshackle two-story colonial reads, “Reformed Breatharian House, Bedford Falls.” The wee joke, Bedford Falls being the fictional town in the Jimmy Stewart classic. “Reformed” refers to the schismatic leanings of the house’s inhabitants, all of whom are students enrolled at Chuckwalla Junior College. Orthodox Breatharians believe that life can be sustained solely through the nourishment of prana, that is, light and air. After a Breatharian devotee reaches a sufficient level of consciousness, he need take no food or liquid. The fast is permanent.

Reformed (sometimes called secular) Breatharians, understand that the body needs nourishment, and thus are content to be vegan raw foodists who drink only rainwater. They follow a limited and strict diet of vegetables cultivated in their own garden. Other than that (considerable) difference, they adhere to standard Breatharian practices. They eschew all heating and cooking. They avoid all transportation that involves combustion of fuels, and often have long and circular arguments concerning even the humble bicycle. They don’t use electricity, or any of the products requiring it. Each owns only one garment for both winter and summer. Their house is bare of furniture and fixtures. Residue from the communal composting toilet nourishes the garden.

It should be mentioned that the Chuckwallla Reformed Breatharians do differ in one way from the secular monks living in the monastery, the Reformed Breatharian Brethren atop Scorpion Peak. The Chuckwalla house will walk or cycle to school on roads and paths made of asphalt and concrete. The monastic brothers will only walk on natural surfaces.

According to a recent article in the Chuckwalla Reveille, the Breatharian creed has come in conflict with the junior college administration. The college has a policy prohibiting students and faculty from wearing hijab, as well as other scarves and headgear that conceal “prominent facial features.”   This includes hoodies, which must be worn down. Some of the Breatharian students favor wool cloaks that include snoods as an integral part of the garment. The students also have agitated for permission to wear surgical masks on days in which PM 2.5 (airborne particulates of 2.5 microns in size or smaller) have sent the air pollution index above 100. “The current policy is being reviewed to take into account possible health concerns,” according to a college statement.

Another issue, according to the newspaper, is that the Breatharian students do not use computers, and submit their assignments in handwriting, using plant-based ink on “recycled and recyclable” writing paper. Some teachers have refused to accept handwritten papers, and some of the younger instructors are unable to read cursive. The impasse, according to a college spokesman, “is currently under adjudication”

Every Sunday afternoon, the Breatharian House is picketed by the congregation of the Not a Sparrow Falls Full Bible Church and the congregation’s OMG Youth Mustard Seed. According to Pastor Byron Fistule, “Breatharianism is a deviant Satan-inspired sect in opposition to the received Scriptural Word and to American values.” An out-of-court settlement with the church last December resolved a complaint concerning a crèche that had been placed without permission amid the vegetables growing on the Breatharian House front yard.

Breatharians are not known to be a proselytizing community but earlier this month a spokesperson from “the Northern Marches” (which seems to mean somewhere along the California-Oregon border) spoke at a meeting of the Sociology Forum at the college.

Breatharian schismatic Simon St Cyr admitted that the ultra-orthodox version of Breatharianism holds that it is possible to get all nourishment from the life force in air and light.  “We’re schismatic,” St Cyr said.  “We eat a simple diet of raw foods.  We don’t all wear robes and sandals like the monks at the monastery, but we dress simply.  Our main aim is to do no harm by avoiding commerce and consumerism, by not burning carbon, and by using as few resources as possible.”

 

According to the Chuckwalla Reveille, sociology student Evan Hardell objected: “Do you actually expect an American to give up his car, his social media, his internet, his hamburger and fries, his vacation in Cancun, his pizza and beer, his shopping spree, his outboard motor, his weed-whacker, so he can eat a raw unpeeled potato?”

“I think you know the answer,” St Cyr said.

 

 

Nighthawks

The diner is in the Village, but according to Jo, the painter’s wife, Hopper has “simplified” the venue, stripping out non-essentials. I’ll say. The sidewalk and street are preternaturally clean, cleaner than in any city except maybe Pyongyang. The backdrop is vaguely surreal. The empty storefront across the street has no signage. In the line of strange windows on the second store, shades are half up, no lights on, apparently unoccupied. No cars on the street, no fire hydrant, no streetlight on the curb.

Inside the harshly lit diner, the counter also has been simplified. Many of the usual accouterments are missing. No stacks of platters, no glass cases for doughnuts and pies, no utensils or condiments. Bare walls; most diners have clocks, advertisements, notices, menus.   It is a surreal diner, with, strangely, two realistic elements.

The coffee urns are fully plumbed, the hot water pipe coming up from the floor connects both urns. The urn on the right is a quarter filled with coffee; the one on the left half filled with hot water. And then there’s the signage over the window. Much has been made of this ad for Phillies cigars.

Hopper’s wife Jo made notes on all his canvasses, but gave no explanation or the cigar ad. Did the artist have a message? My first thought conjured vice president Marshall’s famous quip, made in the U.S. Senate: “What this country needs is a good five cent cigar,” because of the tagline on the ad, “Only 5 cents.” As an arcane afterthought, the cigar pictured, with tapered front and tail, is called a “perfecto” in cigar lingo. And then underneath, inside the diner, sterility and desolation.

So the quartet. What can be inferred from the evidence? Poet Oates has one thing wrong. The woman isn’t smoking a cigarette, although her male companion is (with no ashtray in sight). According to Jo, she is holding a sandwich. It doesn’t look much like a sandwich, and no plate is on the counter. I thought it kind of looked like a ring box, which would have helped out Joyce Carol’s lurid projections. Oates remarks her pallid skin, hair dye, and recently applied lipstick. I was struck by her suspiciously un-anatomical clavicle and her unnaturally long arms.

The hawk-nosed gent by her side is at least ten years older. His face shows weariness and disillusionment, as he listens with marked disinterest to a remark from the white-clad counterman with the improbably cocked hat. A clinician looking at this face might find signs of depression and might see in the hollow cheek and sunken eye the first signs of physical disease.   But the man hasn’t given up on himself, which is demonstrated by his natty tailored suit and knotted tie, the clean cuff and manicured nails

The human on the left border in a non-entity, there to frame the principles. From his posture, his cauliflower ear, the slouch hat, the too-tight suit with a pocket pulled out, we know he’s a faceless mug with no story.

Here’s my take on the couple. They work together in a small Village club that he owns or manages. They may be an item, but it’s a merger based more on pragmatism than on romance. They’re in a rut, know it, and there’s no way out. He knows the business is failing; she knows her looks are going, and her once bright hopes already are dead. They’re having a cup of black coffee (no creamer or sugar jar) before catching the last bus home.

 

A Year at the National Enquirer

Lantana, FL – I’d been recruited in San Francisco as a staff reporter for the National Enquirer, and had flown out to Florida in my Cessna 150. Most of the staff were Brits, recruited from the Fleet Street tabloids, but a handful of Yanks were on board to cover certain specialties, Government Waste, Medical Breakthroughs, Tales of True Courage, on the theory that native speakers had a better handle on the U.S. bureaucracy. Even so, I already had covered a couple of flying saucers, a pterodactyl sighting in Eagle Pass, Texas, and a profile of the childhood of Jerry Lewis, when the editor called me over.

The research department had found that the Texas town of Perdenales, near Fredericksburg, had reported more extraterrestrial visits than any other American municipality. What the publisher had in mind was an Enquirer exclusive. An extraterrestrial visitor would walk into the downtown…and be treated just like any other tourist, getting the glad hand from friendly citizens and the big Texas Howdy. See, Texas is really a cosmopolitan melting pot, welcoming to all regardless of race, creed or planet of origin. Then after the Big Texas Howdy we’d reveal that the event had been staged just to make that very point about big-hearted Texas…and we’d give everybody a certificate.

My job would be to make the arrangements, hire the aliens, get the costumes, figure out “a sound” for the visitors, and take care of printing, logistics and publicity. After a personal look at the hill country burg of 10,000 I had a few ideas. My aliens would be small and unintimidating, since everybody in town seemed to be driving a pickup with a rifle in the rack. I mulled the idea of having the little visitors walk in wearing cowboy hats but that seemed too hokey. Instead I decided to have them wear full body armor under their silver costumes.

It turned out that body armor capable of stopping a bullet would weigh over 50 pounds. Obviously I would be needing a couple of little people who were professional stuntmen, from the union in Hollywood. The costumes came from New York, the design based on the look of the silvery Roswell aliens, slender contour, bulbous heads, almond eyes.   The eerie high-pitched electronic wail came from a sound studio in LA.

Two diminutive stuntmen signed up, getting a whopping paycheck for one day’s work, along with plane tickets for Austin and keys to a van to take them to the step-off point just outside the target’s city limits. At dawn, the aliens would walk into town along a two-lane arterial. The landing zone had been prepped, because the week before I had hired a small plane and dropped colored flares in the hills to the west, afterwards alerting the local radio station to possible strange doings, a report duly passed on to listeners.

The stuntmen arrived and tried on the costumes and armor. They were tough, middle-aged, hard-eyed professionals whose livelihood and career depended, not only on their skill and cool courage, but upon their ability to correctly calculate risk. They hefted the armor. It wasn’t sufficient, they figured, to stop a heavy round. They made a brief assessment of the populace. Farmers and ranchers, good old boys and rednecks. And they said no. They wouldn’t be walking into town looking like space aliens, no matter what the payday.

It was failure. And the Enquirer treated failure harshly. Every Friday at the Oyster Bar we heard about the latest round of firings of reporters who couldn’t “keep their socks up.”   I might get a rocket back at work, but I was relieved. By the time the stuntmen turned down the job, I’d become convinced they’d be shot before they even got to the town limits.

I didn’t get fired, but a few months later I got on somewhere else, and was airborne for California.

 

 

I’m Your Pal, Di

Really, Diane? You were way too cute with that square.

Sure, he’s a mope

But it’s kind of rich for you, the Barnard girl, to play the Indian card on a harmless boob

He’s just a speck in the iris

I’m your pal, Di, and I’m tellin’ ya

Sometimes when you get a snoot full you put a big stick in your own peeper

If I was one of you literary faces

I’d call it precious

Or like Ginsburg said last night,

“…the preening of a purloined victimhood.”

And excuse me. Princess. You can’t score any buttons?

Let me steer you

There’s nothing for you in Pete’s stash

Hey, you did make me smile at that Bloomingdales’ line. I know where you got that spirit warrior blouse, Di.

Raiment Chandler’s in the Village

Okay. I’m just the trumpet player in this joint.

But I’m your pal, Di

You should listen to the nurses.

Cirrhosis is no joke.

I hate to see you get sloshed in here every night and start putting shade on the tourist mopes.

They ain’t the creeps.

They didn’t bring syphilis to the nations

Or smear smallpox in the blankets.

The real creeps ain’t out slummin’ in the Bowery

Yeah, it was awful what they did to us

I could lay Negro into the same line

But that poor chump never said nothing about Pocahontas,

Or the tom-toms

Or your bow and arrow

That was you jabbering

I’m your pal, Di

All this shade you put on people

It’s a worm eating your guts

It’s gonna eat you up

(The poet Diane Burns, a resident of lower Manhattan and a graduate of Barnard College, died in 1993 at 49 from liver and kidney failure.)

 

 

Forgetful Bachelor’s Greeting during this Special Time

Merry Yuletide Greetings for the Holiday Season.

May you enjoy a Prosperous and Happy New Year.

This seems an opportune moment to wish you a very Happy Birthday, whether this important annual event already has been celebrated or remains a future calendar item.

May this find you in good fettle on Mother’s Day.  Ditto Father’s Day. 

Your Weddings and Anniversaries have meant so much to everyone, and these occasions should be memorialized here

 Please accept at this time my sincere condolences for your loss.  

 If you get sick, I wish you a speedy recovery.

I’d also like to tender my heartfelt congratulations on your Promotion, Inheritance, Book Contract, or other good fortune. 

 And I hope you will be my Valentine.

 

Season’s Greetings

Merry Christmas

Feliz Navidad

Hendrit Pasho

Happy Hanukkah

Allah Akbar

Naye sal ti HAERDKIK

Subhhamnayenh

Heri Za Kwanzaa

Nguzo Xaba

Ejaaza Sae eeda

Sincere regards,

Please post this on the refrigerator and refer to it at the appropriate times.

 

Loompanics 2008

 

How is it that you, Phil, perpetually unemployed, can travel the world, find a hot and a cot, pop the cork, yet always seem to have plenty of ready? Is it some kind of criminal enterprise? An inheritance from a forgotten uncle? We know you don’t do anything; you haven’t had a pay stub in years. You look like an idler without the work ethic to turn a doorknob. Yet you just came back from a winter vacation in Costa Rica. Before that it was a jaunt along the Appalachian Trail. How do you find the time and money?

 

You answered half your question. Since I don’t work I have the leisure. The money you want to know about. That’s pretty darn simple. No roofs or restaurants. Most of the year I live in a tent. I don’t pay for a roof. I don’t eat in restaurants. “Restaurants” here is metaphor for loose spending on the trifling and ephemeral. The concert ticket. The five dollar beverage across the polished bar. The stadium event.

 

I’m frugal in everything, but this is the major relief. No rent or house payment. The money the average mope squanders eating out and screwing around. I’m not saying one ought to do this: give up callow pastimes and live like a Bedouin. It’s something to think about.

 

My tent (actually I have five, each for a different purpose) goes up, usually, on a pitch that’s rent-free. At this exact minute in sunshiny summer, I’m camped in the spacious backyard of a friend in the Northern California wine country. The friend is a successful, stress-ridden hyper achiever with a home in San Francisco. This is her weekend place.

 

I use the bathroom, but otherwise stay outside. I never have to make a bed or wash her dishes. On the weekends, when she and her friends arrive, I’m gone, backpacking, or on a little sailboat in the Delta.

 

Living in a tent means I skip the utilities. I do without refrigeration, air conditioning, washer/dryer, plasma screen television, microwave oven, central heating, overhead lighting. Nothing but a flip phone. No debt on the plastic. Paid cash ten years ago for the Honda smudge pot. And the insurance (I’m an excellent driver) is less than $300 a year.

 

Garbage? The little I generate goes into the trash basket at the gas station. So count the fingers, No rent or mortgage, no car payment, no monthly bills, no credit card debt. A pretty small nut.

 

I spend most of my disposable income on travel. Of course I tent. Yes, I’ve been in plenty of hotels, hostels, motels, fleabags, dumps, and dives. I prefer to carry my own accommodations including kitchen, as being the cheapest way, camping out, and I can do my own cooking, healthier and less expensive than the lard, brine and corn treacle from a restaurant kitchen.

 

Don’t get me started on restaurants. Unhealthy food, shameless gouging, a filthy kitchen. And what fun is it to be around servile people? Bless their hearts, the toiling waitress, the exploited cooks and busboys. Fine people doubtless. I suffer watching them demean themselves in pursuit of gratuities.

 

I live under canvas these days in balmy California. I also can bunk aboard a boat berthed for free at a riverfront cabin on the Sacramento. In Southern California I have ten acres of worthless desert waste, Rancho Costa Nada, purchased years ago for $300 at a tax default land auction.

 

Wintering in Mexico, I stay at beach camps south of San Felipe. In summer, the glorious Sierra Nevada offers hundreds of free Forest Service campgrounds. Mainly these low overhead expedients have excused me from the common burden.

 

While I’m mostly leisured, from time to time I turn my hand to earn walking around money or to top off the travel kitty. How hard is that, to shake a few bucks in a bountiful land? For me the floor is a grand a month. I always bring in more, and I intentionally cap my income at $20,000 a year, tops, most of which goes for supermarket eats, a good bottle, and travel.

 

This kind of remuneration would be dire in Samland if I had the usual expenses. Because I’m below some arbitrary poverty line, I pay negligible taxes. My federal tax in 2007 was $120. My income derives from temporary short-term unsupervised contract jobs that don’t need a suit. I skip anything that would crimp my travel plans.

 

I have a younger sister who is supportive. My elder sister has always been critical. Phil, she says, you’re not a Biblical pastoralist or a nomadic Sioux. Look at your watch. It’s the 21st century. People have stopped living in tents. I don’t know. It's now a bumpy ride for a lot of folks. Some of 'em underwater on their mortgages, late on the rent, out of a gig, up to their eyes in credit card quicksand, reduced to eating cereal with tap water.

 

Maybe, under the circumstances, an actual house or apartment is too much. Maybe a tipi, or a yurt, or some other kind of full-time, year-around tent might make sense. A little inconvenient, but no discomfort, if one does it right.

 

Of course, the would-be permanent camper needs a pitch. It could be a campground; it could be an orphan property; it could be a compliant friend's backyard, as in my case right now. Since the extermination of the buffalo, full-time tent living, nomadic or otherwise, hasn't really caught on in Samland, except among the gentlemen of the grape who roost beneath railroad bridges.

 

The ruck of Samlanders, even the poorest, have come to feel entitled to roofing, refrigeration, electrical outlets, indoor plumbing. Tents are associated with the privation of a refugee camp, or with one of Sheriff Joe's outdoor resorts in Arizona. Tents might be okay for the Plains Indians. But not for the fine haired American mope.

 

I keep my tents and kit in a small storage locker in a friend’s garage. I have a tent for backpacking, one for light car camping (a few days), one for heavy car camping (a few weeks), and two more for luxury camping or for prolonged stays. When housesitting, like now, I pitch a couple of the big tents.

 

One is a ten-by-ten, seven feet high; the other, the kitchen, same specs. The kitchen tent is really a shade awning of the kind used at the farmers’ market. Mine is swathed in mosquito netting, with windscreens inside. The screens are painted plywood panels hinged together and set to block the prevailing northwesterly.   If needed a third tent serves for the shower. Inside is a tiny plastic wading pool. I pour sun-warmed water on my head.

 

The owner of the wine country retreat is worried about security. The property is sequestered and semi-rural and unoccupied during the week. She wants a presence from time to time so the house isn’t a temptation to the despicable cretins who strip copper out of conduits. I could sleep inside but I prefer not. For one thing, I fear mission creep, the idea that if I become too ensconced and comfortable I might out of conscience feel called upon to help with quotidian maintenance chores.

I’m not handy on purpose, I like to say. My old dad said, anything worth doing, such as cleaning the furnace or pruning a tree, is worth hiring somebody competent to do for you. So I am a mere sentry. A taut tripwire, ready to punch three numbers on my cell. But not a groundskeeper.

 

Better to sleep outside. I cook outside too. My friend always finds her kitchen spotless, because I never use it. I tried it once, and what happened? I let dishes pile up, I burned a pot, I let food migrate to the floor somehow.

At the end of a week it took me hours to make things right. I do the cooking outside using the portable kitchen that comes in a plastic bin traveling on the backseat of the Civic. I like the one-burner stove that encourages the one pot soup or stew. One doesn’t overfeed, cleanup is easy.

 

But isn’t it cold? In a tent? In Vermont or North Dakota, it probably is. I live in a temperate Mediterranean climate. Even in damp dreary winter, the temp seldom falls below fifty eff. One October I backpacked through England, rain every day, camped outside every night. And I was warm because I had good rain gear and the temperature never fell below 50. Say it does start to get a little brisk (or too hot, for that matter). What is the principle virtue of a tent? Particularly if one has a car as well.

 

One can tent in California, or in Florida, the year around. South in November, north again in June. A down sleeping bag. A good mattress. A hot water bottle to put next to the feet. Appropriate clothing. I dress for the weather and in this case it is not smart to be cheap. Gore-Tex or equivalent raingear, and a thick wool Pendleton, plenty for Sonoma County. I also have propane fired Mr. Heater, used only for short blasts to warm up the ambiance while I’m changing clothes. The main thing, if it’s wet, is to be out of the drizzle and wind. Tents are made for this.

 

I don’t pay for utilities but I do need light and power. Out at Rancho Costa Nada I used to have batteries, solar panels, fans, water pumps. It was too much, more than I needed. I simplified. Now I carry one deep-cycle marine battery in the Civic, recharged off the alternator. I use regular jumper cables, leading from the car battery under the hood, through the passenger window, to the marine battery bolted down to the floorboard in the passenger seat foot well. This probably isn’t safe, don’t try it.

 

When recharging (which only take about half an hour of drive time) I tamp a thick towel around the caps. In case the battery blows or sparks, the towel may sop up some of the acid. The marine battery is used mostly to recharge electronics while I’m in camp.

 

Inside the tent I use a LED lantern. And a candle (beeswax, less sooty). For reading, a small LED light from Barnes & Noble. I also have a propane lantern whose garish glare is better for illuminating nighttime cooking. A couple of good flashlights at hand.

 

Electronics include a butt simple cell phone, a standard issue laptop, a portable radio, and the paradigm shift, an e-book reader. For years I carted around heavy boxes of books. Gone, gone to the Goodwill. I carry my entire library now on a 7-ounce pixel slate. This has been a huge deal for the rootless, roofless life.

 

Much of the year I travel. In winter, Mexico, usually Baja, somewhere on the Gulf side south of San Felipe, on the beach somewhere. It’s possible to camp for free, but I usually stop at one of the beach campos owned by a family. Twenty bucks a week to set up the tent above the tide line. I’ve never lost anything or been hassled while in Mexico. I put that down to my innocuous demeanor and to the honest appearance of not having anything worth taking. Still, pilfering would be inconvenient, so I prefer to stay within the pale of a local family.

 

In winter also Texas, down around Terlingua and the Big Bend. And if winter is the question, Arizona could be the answer. Arizona has long-term camping areas, huge swaths of BLM land, where the tenter or more frequently the alumna-lodger can stay all winter for a C-note.

 

Summer is for the Sierra Nevada. And for sailboats. I used to live full time on a sailboat, a Catalina 27, berthed in a marina, so it wasn’t free, but it was cheap rent. Much of the time I was on the road, but the boat made a home base. Instead of using the marina’s crummy bathroom for showering, I joined a nearby gym. Work the machines, hit the shower. That boat is gone, but recently I bought a Cal 25. I had to! During this slump people are giving boats away.

 

The boat, purchased for a few dollars at a Boy Scout auction, is on the Sacramento River. It’s sound, came with a full set of sails, and is set up for cruising, with a comfortable bunk, so it doubles as a pied a mer for visits to the bike trails of Marin County.

 

I can’t always camp. That trip to Costa Rica last month. Too much trouble these days to schlep gear through the airport. The airline charges for extra bags. My kitchen pot looks funny to the x-ray machine. So in Costa Rica I stopped at the backpacker hostel near the Monteverde cloud forest, ten bucks a night. But, traveling light, I couldn’t follow my usual motel program. Generally, with the budget sleep, including Motel 6, I never break the bed. I spread a plastic ground cloth and sleep in my own bag or liner. Bugs. In really iffy places, I keep the light on all night to discourage nocturnal pests. And I usually douse the bed from a bottle of permethrin.

 

In Costa Rica I got bitten. Bed bugs in the hostel; chiggers from walking through the grass in the jungle; no-see-ums on my ankles on the outdoor terrace. I had DEET, but not enough. At the little village tienda I looked for something with permethrin. The only item like that on the shelf was a can of flea powder for dogs. I dusted this on my clothes, and got good results with no apparent side effects (the obligatory arf here).

 

“No roofs or restaurants” isn’t your mantra. You’re a family guy. Kids. This isn’t for you. I’ve seen it, but rarely. For one thing, med insurance. In my case, I crouched in the shadow of the flag, and get free socialized medicine from the VA. I also have two good doctors, my right foot and my left foot. Most families with kids are going to want coverage. That probably means a job.

 

Women, sure. Beatrice (Beet) Bailey, and Walks-With-Tom, wife of Tom Walker, are two full time distaff campers who have lived under canvas for years. Plenty of young couples live in a tipi as a post college option while pondering the future. But most people are going to follow the conventional line, for pretty good reasons.

 

Some fear the moral ambiguity of leisure. Why should I laze along, while others toil? Some know they would drift, without the guiding hand of an overseer. Some enjoy workplace challenges and the camaraderie of peers, or blaze with an ambition that needs an arena. Some would feel guilty about the pejorative blowback of being a slacker in go-getter Samland.

 

Some want structure and the appearance of meaning in their lives. Some find comfort in having a confirmed place in the hierarchy. Some believe a life of labor ennobles. Some crave consumer objects that only a regular payday will give. Bless your hearts. You need a job; you need a roof and a steady address to put on the W-2. You can also pay some taxes to support worthwhile social security, civil servants, interstate freeways, government infrastructure, elite bailouts, the usual wars, all the boondoggles we read about in the paper, and me.

 

Most are one with the Borg. Kind of assumed, isn’t it? Not propaganda exactly, but the culture. An adult takes the bit, settles in, finds a place, shoulders his responsibilities, buys a house, maybe begets progeny, pays his own way, has a good time on the weekend and on his two-week paid vacation.

 

If the majority opted out, what? I’ve heard belittling remarks aimed at the blowhards on TV, the demagogues who disparage the slacker welfare moms and the immigrant freeloaders. The real sons of Sam, the blowhards say, relish hard work. Put me with the blowhards. We need more of those apotheosized hard workers. At the lower end they may be saps and dupes, but taken together they contribute to the prosperity that makes a leisured class possible.

 

The author of a book about urban homesteading said she figured I must be one of the sustainably green. No central heating. No all-electric kitchen. No more than a smidgen of garbage to the landfill. Not much of a thumbprint. Alas. I ran the numbers and I’m a carbon polluter of the ambiance just like you are.   The travel.

 

My ride is a four-cylinder, 1.6-liter gas buggy, and realistically the best the common mope can do. A Prius is pricey. Electric cars for intercity travel await a battery not invented yet. The hydrogen tank in a personal vehicle is a hoax and chimera. Fryer grease, worse than diesel. Switch grass and corn? That’ll be the day. The green-minded average mope who drives a small efficient internal combustion machine is doing what he can.

 

I drive my Civic about 18,000 miles annually and that means six tons of smut. In 2008 I took six domestic and two international flights. My share of the burnt kerosene amounted to five tons of lingering air-borne soot. I didn’t offset by planting a tree. I’m not even counting my share of soot from one transcontinental train run because rail is the virtuous way for the green party to get around. I try for some combo of bike, train, bus and boot. But with the car and the plane tickets, I’m another hypocrite.

 

My derisive elder sister has always taken special aim at my culinary oddities. The baby food pate; the shredded wheat in the soup; the washing of raw vegetables in a bucket of water seasoned with bleach, the rubbery non-fat cheese, the instant dehydrated potato mixed with oat bran; the homemade salsa of boiled tomatoes. My diet is not for emulation. But at bottom, despite some crochets, the food is just the ordinary elitist regimen of vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, and small lashings of lean meats, modified to conform to the lack of refrigeration, and to a one-burner stove.

 

In Samland I graze the ubiquitous supermarkets like Safeway and Albertsons. Pre-cooked brown rice that will engorge in the Thermos; whole grain crackers; peanuts and walnuts; non-fat cheese mold-free for weeks; packaged spinach that can be blanched with boiling water from the teapot; packages of frozen veggies that last a few days in the shade; tiny jars of Gerber’s turkey and broth baby food as a pate on a cracker; the standard basket of fresh fruit; whole wheat bread to dip in olive oil and vinegar; dark chocolate (81 percent cocoa) if the day is cool; shredded wheat; the yogurt cup; carrot, pepper, mushroom and radish from the produce aisle; Mrs. Dash; powdered milk; pickles and olives; sardines and herring. Washed down with Pee No War and Savvy Young Blank.

 

I cook on a one- burner propane stove, mostly soups and stews. I use small propane canisters that I refill from a five-gallon tank using a cute coupler device I found in a catalog. I have in my plastic kitchen bin a couple of pots with lids; I have a quart Thermos for tea water, and a large mouth one for cooking rice, lentils and oatmeal. I have a large stainless steel bowl for blanching the spinach. Most of my cooking skill I acquired during my tenure with the Boy Scouts of America. Semi-feral. I once talked to this guy who soldiered in the French Foreign Legion. He said the food was terrible, but it didn’t matter because the wine was French. I keep that in mind.

 

My old pal Beet Bailey does most of her cooking in an ice chest. After bringing beans to a quick boil she wraps the bottom of the pot in aluminum foil and sets it on a folded towel at the bottom of the ice chest. Then she wraps the pot in a garage sale wool shirt, and closes the chest lid. Beans cook in a couple of hours, rice and vegetable stews cook in an hour.

 

Like Beet, I recycle glass pickle jars for Tupperware and food containers by wrapping them in duct tape. If I drop one the tape keeps the broken glass from drifting. Beet says the glass is also free of chemicals that might infuse the food. Beet says, “In thrift stores and at garage sales I’m always looking for the glass or stainless steel-lined Thermos.” She uses these for camp refrigeration without electricity. A frozen package of green peas, corn, or blueberries poured into a Thermos bottle will stay chilled three or four days, she says. If it promises to be particularly sultry, she wraps the Thermos in a wool sweater and sticks it into a cooler for added insulation.

 

No porcelain, of course. No nozzle exiting the tiled wall. Generally, I warm up water in the sun and then pour it over my head. Years ago I caged a ride with a bush pilot flying from Valdez to Anchorage. We stopped in some village in the Copper Canyon to pick up two young backpackers. They’d been out awhile and had got pretty ripe.

 

I think they were showing off. No reason for it. It’s easy to keep clean in the field or anywhere with a little water. Think of the bidet in that French hotel. Warm some water in the cooking pot and clean up Pittsburg. Swamp the Netherlands. Then jam the reeking duds into a plastic bag, and put on that tee shirt and the lightweight trousers you packed for the ride to the airport.

 

When I travel I carry a lot of washcloths. When I visit the john at the gas station I take in a quart plastic freezer bag with warm water and a squirt of soap. In the stall, a quick rub-a-dub while straddling the toilet. In camp a plastic dishpan makes a rustic bidet. In the sun-drenched wine country of a morning, I set out a bunch of gallon jugs, and by early afternoon the water is bath temp. Nobody around so, standing naked in the garden, I pour tepid water over my head Burning Man style.

 

At Burning Man I have seen women, uncharacteristically modest considering the venue, wear a mu-mu or bathrobe and scrub themselves underneath. Maybe in LA, while strolling the Venice boardwalk, you happened on the homeless beach bums showering al fresco from a water bottle on the public strand. Point is, a daily wash, not that difficult, and then one won’t waft the scent of eau de dead goat.

 

Out on the range once more,

Totin’ my old .44.

Where you sleep out ever night,

And the only law is right….

 

The tricky question of guns. I think the Second Amendment has come to mean that the average citizen, if he’s white, propertied and male, can own guns for self-defense, as long as he registers, and agrees to sign up for the well-regulated National Guard auxiliary. I read though that “well regulated” in the 18th Century probably meant having everything you need. Like a well regulated ship. I have a few pieces in storage. Rancho Costa Nada, my baronial desert estate, began as a shooting range, a remote venue for the gun fanciers in the photo department at the Orange County Register to pop caps without bothering anybody.

 

The chance that any trouble-adverse mope in Samland will ever need a fire stick for actual self-defense is just about zilch. A gun is more the psychological crutch. Still. I travel in remote places. I frequently sleep in a tent in the woods. So what is reasonable? The rifle and pistol are under lock in storage, but I travel with the break-breach shotgun in the trunk. My reasoning is: a single shot smoothbore probably will pass muster with the cops.

 

The routine traffic stop. I don’t think I profile, but say the cop asks permission to search the vehicle. I’m a Constitution guy. The state hasn’t right to search the citizen’s property without a darn good reason. Fine. Do I have a gun in the car? It’s not smart to lie. So maybe there goes my Constitutional protection. Maybe now I’m rolling probable cause. A shotgun with some bird or small game loads can plausibly be presented as a survival tool (although a big jar of peanut butter would be better). The buckshot? That’s...just in case.

 

By nature I’m of a haughty mind, and would fain run steel through the guts of yon gentleman, and lift the wallet from his course, than take his gratuity.

--Personius

 

Kind of an aside here, but apropos of the wandering theme. When I was on my budget holiday in Costa Rica, I found myself thinking about the servile people who helped me on my way. Tips Appreciated, the driver of the airport shuttle. Elbow Glue, the hopeful urchin who materialized to lead me to the ticket counter at the Coca Bus Terminal in San Jose. Smiling Botones, the hostel porter. Then think of the maids and meseros, the tour guides and bar keeps. Nobody begrudges the money for their nimble help. It’s their willingness to be subservient. Why is a person willing to be servile?

 

“You ask that because you’re an upper middle class guy who has never known a day of desperation,” says my friend Rebecca. “They do honest work, and glad to have it. The trouble with you, Phil, the reason that a grown man is living in a tent, is that you’ve never grown up. Adults accept “as is.” They work; they take care of their own. If smiling and ‘thank you, sir’ can put beans on the table, they do it. Better that than futile resentment, or the gutter.”

 

She’s right about many of the poor cousins of the nations. Servility is the common lot in the underdeveloped tropical paradise, especially if the paradise comes with a despot in the capital and a paucity of social services. I didn’t see any red flag or bloody shirt in Costa Rica, happy land of free schools and medical clinics. Speak okay English, and you have a place at the hotel, at the national minimum wage of 800 colones an hour, a buck-fifty, plus all the propinas a smile can win.

 

I did mention to stern Rebecca the two high school standards, Brave New World and 1984. We all read them as sophomores but paid scant attention. The best way to rule is to convince the sapitariat that they want to be slaves. “Work is Freedom.” So much easier than force. I was trying to suggest obliquely that maybe cultural propaganda is at work in her mind. Why does she think that adulthood means compliance with responsibilities and mores determined by usage, and mostly for somebody else’s benefit? Why go along with the timeless custom that encourages a subset of people to scrape for tips? Adam and Eve have to dig or spin. But why must a certain cohort pull the forelock for a copper? We need Boots, the porter, and greasy Joan the serving wench. But why do they need to fawn and play up for what ought to be a straightforward wage?

 

I haven’t had to do it. Of course I would if I had a child gnawed by hunger. But otherwise I don’t think I would work any job that involved my saying, “thank you” for a tip. Despite what Rebecca thinks about my antecedents, I have soiled my hands with menial labor (for short periods) and I’ve been the usual liar, hypocrite, flatterer and false friend in the corporate world. But the overt servility of tip seeking marks a line in the sand.

 

I was watching a uniformed first officer for an airline get on the airport shuttle. He is young, able-looking, self-satisfied. He graciously allows the fifty-ish driver to tote his bag aboard. At the hotel he alights as the driver deposits the bag on the pavement. From his pocket come the bills. Nobody knows what another is thinking, but the officer appears pleased with himself. A ritual successfully performed, and his status confirmed. The officer isn’t ancient or crippled; he could tote his own bag. He could also go ahead and give the old driver some money. But there has to be this faux transaction.

 

My friend Ann, the music teacher, says there is nothing servile about a servant accepting a gratuity. Mozart was servile when he wrote groveling, obsequious letters to prospective patrons. But isn’t it different in the strata of waiters and bellboys and red caps working for tips?

 

Tips encourage social harmony and discipline, Ann says. In a cold world, smiles, however motivated, should be rewarded. Nobody wants the churlish Moscow department store clerk of old. A small gratuity for an assistance, or even for a mere pleasantry, is a social lubricant, like a glass of wine at a boring party. Civilization means hierarchy and restraint, and hierarchy and restraint mean hypocrisy. We all smile to be polite. We all laugh at our superior’s boorish joke. You, Phil, are no better than the “How ‘bout those Yankees?” barber prattling about RBIs over his scissors. Everybody is somebody’s servant, and everybody is playing up to somebody. Why pick on the waiter? I have no answer.

Another friend says she was a waitress in her slender college days and didn’t mind taking tips. Although now a well compensated professional, she would waitress again if needed to support her children. I stipulate, we would murder for our children. But that exigency aside, could you be a waiter?

 

Of course I don’t like restaurants anyway. The food is unhealthy. Suet, brine and corn syrup. But more, I’m embarrassed being around servile people. I want to slap them. Why do you do this? It’s corrosive, not only for you, but for me as well. I’m being drawn into a ritual in which we both play false parts. You applaud my wine choice; you suggest the veal, because the chef told you to push it; your smile suggests you think I’m kinda cute, even though I’m old enough to be your father. And I have to try to shoulder the ludicrous pretense of being a suave guy who knows how to be generous.

 

Servility does teach hypocrisy, which I suppose we all need to know. Later, with her friends, she’ll be hilariously derisive about the fools she chatted up a few hours before. They were seated next to the kitchen, but she got twenty-five percent out of the old man just by brushing against his shoulder. And how expertly she ran up the bill! Another cocktail? (You’re already shit-faced) Desert tray? (You fat clown).   Fun. But her youth squandered.

 

Would we be willing to pay more in a joint with a big sign that said, “Our employees get a good wage. No gratuities needed or wanted.” Provided they actually do get a good wage.

 

At McDonald’s tipping isn’t expected. The working mopes there don’t strike me as servile. A poorly paid, greasy job, but not one requiring subservience to the slack-jawed clientele. On the road, I sometimes use the clean bathroom at a franchise, but never buy the food. What amazes me at a McDonald’s is the consumer. His lips and fingers are blue, his pulse thready, his breath labored, and he orders the cyanide. Supersized. The McD working mopes are evil, but only in the sense that they are complicit in occluding the arteries of children and of turning us into a nation of fat cripples.

 

This is overweening Prufrockian nicety, says my sister. It’s always been thus. Certain people serve others. Society has rules about place. You learn the rules to rub along in the world. Not everybody gets to be boss.

 

The wisdom of the ages, personified in my older sister. She also says I’m a spigot, and don’t know when to shut up. She says I continue to rattle on about my sterile preoccupations long after everybody is stifling a yawn. I’m through. I have to pack anyway. I’m going to Texas.

 

(This for a Loompanics promo for Rancho Cost Nada)

 

 

 

 Head Case

“You snore,” my soon-to-be ex-wife said to me. Snoring was not the proximate issue for the divorce. She gave me a list of reasons, and snoring wasn’t even on it. I didn’t think I did snore, but I left the tape recorder on one night. The doc at the VA said it was mild sleep apnea, and prescribed a CPAP. It’s a little fan with hose and facemask which delivers “continuous positive air pressure” to keep the uvula fluttering.

 

I slept a lot better. I imagined as I drifted off that the CPAP (renamed by me as “Better Breather”) hummed a soft lullaby,” kind of “lubabubbbabaonareereebop…” Also, sometimes, it added motivational guidance: “Now you’re fully relaxed…everything’s going to be okay…your mind is…empty…completely empty…vapid…”

My son dropped by and, there not being much to talk about, we watched television. “You’re humming,” my son said.   I was not conscious of humming. “Yeah,” he said, “Luabbalubbalubba…”   A little later he said, “You’re talking to yourself.” That was less worrisome. It’s not unusual for a person my age to talk to the television.

Even so. The next day at the mall I suddenly noticed I was talking out loud. Quietly, but audibly. Maybe that wasn’t so good. We live in a surveillance state where everything is monitored. I’d just read an article about a therapist, of the client-centered humanist school, who was trying an adaptive therapy for schizophrenics. He had them wear a Bluetooth when they went out. A pathological outburst, when yelled into a bud mike, could just be one side of a business negotiation.

I picked up an antique Bluetooth device from the Salvation Army and started wearing it outdoors. If I did mutter and mumble it just meant I was on the phone. The Bluetooth was disconnected but it wasn’t long before I started getting messages. The Betelgeuse Alliance was gathering their war pods. I wasn’t concerned, even though a landing appeared imminent. A person my age expects trouble.

But soon the Bluetooth changed its tone. “Why don’t you listen to me at night? Why is it always Better Breather you put on over your nightcap? You don’t think I’m good enough? You think Better Breather knows everything?   I wouldn’t trust that silver-tongued liberal. No telling what kind of lies he’s putting in your mind.”

That night instead of the usual soothing meditation Better Breather started getting huffy. “You think I don’t know what that thing has been saying about me? You can’t trust junk out of the Sally bin. I have your interests at heart. That creature is not good thing for your head.”

Just to see what would happen, the next night I put on both Better Breather and Bluetooth. I didn’t get any sleep. My ex-wife isn’t interested in reconciliation, but said she’d meet me for coffee.

 

 

 

Travelin’ Band

 

Red Pepper had been fired and he wasn't taking it well. What really rankled, the pink slip hadn't even come from the other Peppers. The cowardly backstabbers had relayed the news through their mutual agent. The band had taken a vote, and Red had been unanimously ousted.   He was being replaced by the 19-year-old Keith Teeth, lead vocal of the teen punk band Kinda in Beta. The foul-mouthed, chronically inebriated Teeth would now become the new Red Pepper.

 

“You gotta be kidding, Manny. Teeth is a sloppy falling down hype," Red said. "He blows more cake that Scarface; his designated driver is the LAPD. He's a pervert and a child molester. Not to mention totally bat shit. What about that twenty minute Charlie Sheen tirade on stage at Coachella?"

 

"That got a zillion hits on YouTube,” said Manny Dotz, the agent who handled the Four Peppers. Manny sighed. This was one of the hardest parts of an agent's job: explaining the facts to yesterday's talent. "You got to admit Keith has personality. He commands the stage."

 

"He drops his shorts and moons the audience. He pisses on the front seats."

 

"He put his head between his knees for that moon shot, Manny said. "Lots of youthful dexterity. Look, Red. You had a great run. But the act was getting a little stale. If the Peppers are ever going to get a deal..."

 

It took Manny awhile but he finally got Red to see reality. He was out. He was too old. Red had started the Peppers, he had made the Peppers, but twenty-nine was too old for a band that was still an opening act, and that had to sell CDs out of a suitcase after the show.

 

"It's not like you're gonna be out of work," Manny said. I'm gonna take care of you. What you need is a tour to freshen things up. Get out of LA. Got some perspective. I'm putting you into a great gig. I’ve lined up some great sidemen for you. I'm telling you, clubs out there are begging for good acts. I'm inundated with cries for help."

 

Rex didn't have much choice. He'd been stabbed in the back by people he brought up from nothing. And obviously Manny was behind it, wanting a lead singer who was publically notorious. Unlike Keith Teeth, Red didn't do drugs or get shitfaced and make scenes that required police intervention.   But Red did have a court order to pay child support, and even if he didn't, he still was going to pay support for Linda and the kid. He had to work, and that meant Manny. "So what kind of tour?"

 

"It'll be great. The great outdoors. Mainly Arizona and Nevada. So many clubs out there hungry for talent. I'm thinking you'll be the Coyotes. Like it?"

 

The other hard part of being an agent was: you're always being pestered by your old clients, particularly the ones that didn't have much change of ever getting another job. Like Kyle Creek (Cripple Creek would be better!) the 76-year-old country honky-tonk guitarist who had once played for Buck Owens in Bakersfield. Or Donald Dobbs, the classically trained Julliard pianist who had tinkled out subdued background Mozart and Chopin for blue-haired old ladies at Crispin’s Apparel before they closed the store. "I've got some great people lined up for you," Manny said.

 

One thing Manny didn't have was the roadie. "You can interview tomorrow. I'll call Topflight Temps right now. I'm thinking we're looking for somebody who can also control things in front of the stage. You know, payday Saturday night, in some places."

 

Three candidates showed up for the interview. One was a short guy wearing some kind of Captain America costume. Another was a sixty-year-old retired cop who had spent too much time at the doughnut shop. The third at least had credentials. He was tall, chiseled, tough looking, with a tennis ball haircut.

 

"This is my DD214. Airborne, Ranger. Special Ops. The postings have been redacted. Iraq for Blackwater. Somalia. Anti-piracy patrols. If I'm along, no troubles." The Captain America applicant opened a comic book he'd brought along. "In this episode Captain America goes undercover as a bouncer in a bar to infiltrate narcotics smugglers. There's a lot in here on how to..."

 

"I don't think we need any more of this," said Special Ops, gently touching the Captain on the shoulder. It happened so quickly that Red only knew about it later when he reviewed the surveillance tape in Manny's office. Captain America's left arm blocked Special Ops, while his right flew across like a spring-activated jackhammer. Special Ops rocked back on his chair, bounced hard on the wall, rebounded, and the kinetic energy of the blow brought him almost face down on the desk. Then he slid off sideways onto the floor. Rex's white suit and aviator glasses were speckled with blood, as was the wall behind him. "Well," Red said finally. "I guess you’re it, Captain." The cop nodded. "It's a good choice."

 

After looking at the dates Manny had scheduled, Red could see the Coyotes would have to cover a wide repertoire. Just in Nevada, between Gerlach and Pahrump, there was the Buckhorn, the Buckaroo, the Peso, the Silver Spur; Hiccups, the Brewhaha, the Sportsman, the Weary Cowboy, the Ten High, the Rendezvous Room, and the Till Two Club. Manny also had booked the Attitude Adjustment Friday at Pleasant Gate Senior Living, the Chuckwalla High School Grad Night (with a Hollywood theme), and a bar mitzvah in Tonopah.

 

Red's girlfriend Rita Runaway could be rhythm guitar and keep the books. Rita had a 13-year-old daughter by the prick asshole superstar Butch Cavendish, the result, Rita said, of a one-nighter when she was a star-struck teen, although Butch refused to acknowledge that brief liaison or its issue. Penelope, a little bit of a know-it-all pest, would have to come along and be home-schooled on the bus.

 

At the first meeting it turned out the classical pianist Dobbs had never played with a band, his entire musical career having been as a solo in department stores or malls. Modern jazz was his hobby; he could cover Brubeck and Davis. He could sight read. It was something.

 

Kyle Creek was a gnarled, knobby, bullet headed sour-faced old cracker, stiff in the back and legs, outfitted with the obligatory Stetson and pin-toe boots. He'd played country dance halls and honky-tonks his entire life, knew intimately the Grand Ol’ Opry favorites, but had no familiarity with popular standards. Red wondered about his covering the rock list. "Is it gee-tar music?” Kyle said. “Because if it's gee-tar music, I can play it."

 

Captain America, while short, turned out to be strong and muscular and easily loaded the amps and equipment, but had no experience with sound systems. Happily, he had a valid license and could drive the ancient Winnebago that Manny had materialized for the Wiley mobile.

 

While crossing the Sierras the Coyotes had time for a few rehearsals before opening Friday night at the Buckhorn Tavern in Trigo, Nevada, population 1,000. The Buckhorn's owner looked uncertain, particularly about the squat small roadie in an action hero costume.

 

"Usually, the bands know the crowd. We get ranch hands, oil riggers, roustabouts, dope growers, a mixed crowd (he cast a glance at Dobbs, who was African American). In the sense of different jobs. You better talk to my doorman." He paused. “Red? Couldn’t it be Tex? For tonight?

 

The doorman, a towering brawny thug in sleeveless wife-beater, shook his head. "Tonight it' all red necks, pissants, and assholes. I got the door and the floor. (To the Captain) You got the band."

 

"This is a low point for me," Red told Rita. "I'm glad you came, but I'm worried. We'll park the Winnebago right next to the rear exit so you can check on Penny. We'll start with “Your Cheatin' Heart” and go to “A Country Boy Can Survive,” Hank to Hank Jr."

 

Red and Rita, despite the many temptations and pitfalls of a life as performers, were otherwise an ordinary domestic couple with only the minimum of flare-ups, tantrums, peevish grandstanding and histrionics. Their irreconcilable differences rarely lasted more than a day.

 

At nine Dobbs warmed up the two-dozen beer drinkers at the bar with the Star Wars theme followed by the “Ride of the Valkeries.” Kyle Creek then did “Your Cheatin' Heart,” and Red and Rita covered “Rollin on the River.” The first fight didn't break out until ten, and after that the thug doorman and Captain America kept busy until closing.

 

The 13-year-old Penny turned out to be okay with the road. She’s convivial, quick to strike up conversations with strangers, and loves to tell jokes. While the band opened, Penny was talking to a customer smoking a cigarette on the front porch. "He's a full-blooded Apache,” she said when Rita looked out the door “He says his name is Stillwater. He's telling me coyote jokes.”

 

Stillwater nods. "You hear about the little blonde coyote who got caught in a trap? She chewed off three of her legs and she was still stuck." Penny hesitates a beat but laughs when she gets it. It's the kind of joke she likes. "Know any more?

 

"I guess the coyote stories are passed down through the generations." Rita says

“That,” says the Indian, “And the web site.” “Such a rich heritage,” Rita says, “Chanting, rattles, drum circles. The Great Spirit. The casino. “

 

“Don’t forget scalping sodbusters and kidnapping white girls, although that would violate my restraining order. Oh, don’t worry about your kid. I used to drink and fight during the full moon. Now it's more like a crescent moon. Same moon. Different phase.

 

Penelope tells the Indian. "Red isn't my real dad. My dad is the famous rock star, Butch Cavendish and the Lonesome Rangers. He doesn't admit I'm his kid. But I am.”

 

The Captain doesn’t have an authentic Captain America outfit. The letter on the skullcap is an R rather than an A. And the blue tunic has the five-pointed star on the chest, but lacks the red-and-white stripped belt indicating super powers. The R stands for Roger.

Captain Roger is on the side of the stage with a round shield with a duct tape star in the middle. The shield isn't unobtainiam. Roger made it from a Martha Stewart stainless steel platter.

 

It's the predicted Cowboy rowdy Friday night at the Buckhorn. The doorman is breaking up fights along the bar and ejecting drunks. Soon the first beer bottle sails toward the stage. The captain deftly deflects it with his shield, and picks up a mop to repel the first of those wishing to join the band. He uses the mop handle to give sharp pokes in the solar plexus or throat of would-be assailants. He's strong and quick.

 

"You a mean little fucker," remarks a music fan after a sharp poke from the mop end. "I’m short, but I’m crazy,” says Roger. Despite the bottles and cups of ice falling on the stage, the show goes on. It probably isn't noticeable to the audience that this first set of the Coyotes is a little ragged. Dobbs is game but he hasn’t mastered the fake book. Rita is yelling at a leering moron who has splashed beer on her tights. Kyle can make his guitar sound like a machine gun, and sends off bursts of fire when a mêlée starts on the floor. Kyle, for one, isn’t perturbed by honky-tonk mores. His only concern is to protect his pickin' fingers. When one fan leaps onto the stage, Kyle kicks him in the shins, still picking, with the guitar over his head. Dobbs is more alarmed; this isn't Nordstrom's.

 

Three a.m. The bar is closed. The room's wreaked, overturned tables and chairs, broken glass, spoiled drinks. The thuggish doorman passes the stage, turns up one of the chairs. "It's gonna be worse tonight." He fist bumps the Captain before leaving.

 

The Coyotes go for breakfast at the Your Toast Cafe. As in all burgs, the leading merchants and local squires pick one joint to have breakfast. "Maybe you guys can get it together tonight,” says a squire. The fan base in Trigo. “I hope you liked the show,” says Rita. "Adults don't hope,” says the squire. “Adults handle reality. The Buckhorn is reality. Do your job."

 

The Dark Night of the Soul for Red. They've had a miserable set at a hick town full of yokels and at grim dawn they sit in a greasy spoon with the local rednecks glaring at them. Back at the Winnebago Red turns on Entertainment Today. In the tiny bedroom, Rita and Penny are squabbling about Penny's choice of tops. "A burqa," Rita says, "I want you wearing a burqa when you leave this trailer”

 

On the TV the hosts are joking about the latest scandal stirred up by Keith Teeth during the Monterey Pops concert. He Ralphed in his top hat. And did it again during the second set. “Ha ha,” says the host, “Is that on the album?" The Peppers first album had been released that week to good reviews. There’s also a promo clip featuring Butch Cavendish and the Lonesome Rangers in Las Vegas.

 

Saturday night. Red has installed a wire cage to protect Rita, and a plywood partition in front of Dobbs. The night before the local Aryan Low Riders had commented on the need for a ethnic purge in Trigo. The band has decided it is wiser to keep the piano player out of sight. The piano player agrees. While Rita takes quick breaks to check on Penny, Red does brief standup monologue. When he does the check, Rita’s on trumpet. Or Kyle does the guitar talking-blues

 

Meanwhile, the doorman collars the latest bottle thrower and propels him out the door. On the porch the miscreant wants to argue and a brief flurry of fists precedes the yokel's fall to the dirt. Inside a few young hooligans take advantage of the bouncer's absence to rush Captain America. It's three on one, but the captain has been holding back. He's an adept martial artist and holds off the three much larger combatants until the bouncer returns to help.

 

The Trigo gig finished, Red and the band are in the Buckhorn Sunday morning to load equipment. Red steps out on the porch and immediately is surrounded by the trio of hard-case hooligans who were so much trouble the night before. The three crowd him a little as two bouncy gum-snapping young redneck girls push up from behind.

 

“Oh, Captain," says Red. The Captain comes out on the porch. He exchanges hugs and fives with the three louts. "Good times, bro," says a lout. "Yawl come back and see us, hear. You too," he says to Red. One of the sassy girls gives Rex a smile, and gets a slap on her half-covered butt from one of the louts before they reboard their flatbed Ford. The lass have time to lift her top for Red before the truck disappears down the desolate street in a swirl of dust.

 

.

 

Kyle comes out. "I've traveled the world and the seven seas. I've been soldier, sailor, guitar picker. Slung the blarney at the carny, tick tock at the sock hop, been all round the block, but I never seed a dump as dumpy as this.”

At the Travesty Lounge the opening act is a chainsaw-juggling exhibition by Mr. Lizard, who performs naked. He can juggle two puttering chainsaws, at times passing them under his legs in close proximity. Later in the act he hangs a chainsaw from his scrotum. "Hey," somebody shouts form the bar. "That's my chainsaw. It was in ma truck.” "Come get it," says the maestro. Lizard also plays piano and he and Dobbs perform Ebony and Ivory, although Dobbs keeps his clothes on.

 

As the picaresque gigs accumulate, the Coyotes begin to develop an eclectic style that works in any venue where the clientele isn't too particular. They do a frat party at Reno State, where they cover the track for Animal House. The brothers yell and carouse but Roger is able to keep order with bear hugs and feats of strength such as dead lifting a drunken sophomore. They get a rear stage at the Butte County Fair where Kyle shows that he can yodel like the Singing Brakeman. A succession of rowdy honky-tonks at county crossroads. Rita always pulls the RV next to the back exit so take turns doing solo breaks so that somebody is always checking on Penny.

 

They deliver a non-stop three hours with no pause for the cause. Somebody always playing. Or Red adds a comedy monologue.   At one joint, behind the bar, a big sign. “No Okie Girl jokes allowed." Oakie Girl jokes are some of the filthiest; even Whoopie would be embarrassed, but Red gets in a few, although he pulls the punch line.   The Coyotes have developed a hybrid style. When Dobbs does “Roll Over Beethoven,” it's really Beethoven.

 

They play a dope growers' “Don't Bogart” wedding in Humboldt. A Bachelorette Party at a motel in Stateline Nevada. A quincineros in Mexican Hat, Arizona (a scheduling mix-up, but they play anyway, doing a ten minute version of La Bamba.) They learn to handle tough crowds. Rita can scat, and rap extemporaneous verses mocking the hecklers. Dobbs can do patriotic movie themes and the Star Spangled Banner. They jell into an act.

 

Penny is pestering Kyle and Dobbs while they're rehearsing for a show in Winnemucca. “Have you ever heard of Mozart? Is this Mozart?” Penny taps out a little swatch of the coloratura passage in The Magic Flute. Dobbs plays the melody for her. "I can do that." Dobbs plays the passage, and Penny sings the coloratura. Dobbs says, "Do that again. She does. "Do you know you have absolute pitch?

 

Red comes in with Manny. The agent is in town, not for the Coyotes, but to look at another band playing the casino. Manny has written off Red and the Coyotes. "How old are you again? Twenty-nine? You don't have a chance. No track record, no screen time. No name recognition. No police record, no sex scandals, no drug problems. No brawls with the paparazzi. Do you have a tattoo? You don't even have tattoos. Sure, you're a decent guy. An okay musician. But this isn't about music." This is the recording business

 

The rest of the band returns "Let's do Piece of my Heart,” says Penny and begins a Joplin riff.   "You know you got it..." Manny stops talking. They all listen to Penny's perfect twelve-octave voice.   "It needs to be trained,” says Manny. “We’re bringing her up," Red says. Manny: “I wouldn’t mind a demo from that kid. A character voice that might work…. That's a good high G.”

 

Red is setting up the amps. He knows sound systems. He's tinkered with boards all his life. Another scout who’s with Manny notices Red. “Can you do studio boards? Yeah? I got a lot of work piled up back in Burbank. If you’re ever around.... But I need somebody reliable. Too many flakes in this business. You a hype or an alkie? Right on. Ever mix?   That your kid? She’s good. Needs a coach. Hey, your sound’s right on. Lot of flakes in this business.” Manny leaves, and Red feels like he’s hit rock bottom. Desolation. Total failure. Rita consoles him. “You won the lottery, kid. You hit it big. Knocked one out of the park.”

 

"Because I got you.”

 

“No. No. You don't got me. I picked you. You...I...picked....you. They should call you Mr. Lucky because you got picked out of the lineup by a pearl beyond price. I could have had anybody in showbiz, and I picked you and I only pick winners. Except for Butch. And even then I got Penny.”

 

The pink desert sunset in Winnemucca outside a one-storey motel. Entertainment Today is on TV in the background. The hosts Kendra and Jason react to a news bulletin just in. Keith Teeth dead at 20. An apparent overdose. A tragedy, the hosts agree. Such promise. Won 't be forgotten.   Next up. More Kardashian mania.

 

“I could live here,” says Rita. “I kinda like it. Quiet. Peaceful, except for the weekend. Clean air if the wind isn’t blowing. Comfortable rent. The big vista thing. I could do this.”

 

“Could you do Burbank?”

 

“Sure,” says Rita, “I could do Burbank.”

 

And also….

 

The Apache Stillwater appears throughout, helping Penny perfect her Vanilla Oakie Girl Review, a standup monologue of clean coyote jokes.

 

Her natural father, Butch, hears Penny doing background vocals on a video, and has a change of heart. “That’s my kid.” His ravaged face freezes in grieving introspection as he holds up a hand to silence his entourage of lackeys, hangers on, easy women, dope dealers, and slick managers. “Get my lawyer on the blower.” The complications of an Entertainment Today custody battle.

 

Manny produces, and Red mixes the first “Penny Coyote” album.