Expurgated From UNreal gods: Chapter 2

Billy-Rancher-1981-proof-11smallSteadily, Billy climbed the aluminum extension ladder to the roof of the garage. Denny shielded his eyes from the summer sun and gawked up at his older brother.

—You’re gonna get in trouble if mom finds out you’re up there.

—She’s not gonna find out if you’ll just shut up!! Now get out of the way down there. I’m gonna need some room.

Billy stepped away from the ladder onto the weathered wood shingles of the garage roof. Gingerly, he crept barefooted across and up the roof surface. His tall, lithely slender body belied his youth, for he looked older than ten.

With the caution of a cat, he crawled into position, near the peak of the roof; shaking a shock of golden, sun-bleached hair from his eyes. As Denny stood warily below, Billy proclaimed.

—Okay. I’m ready. Here we go. The greatest Granger dive of the whole world. And now…our hero… Billy Granger!!

Singing a triumphant tune of portent and spectacle Billy skittered down the uneven shingles at top speed and leapt from the roof toward the clear blue water of the swimming pool, in a relaxed ball, exploding with a tremendous splash upon entry. Denny shouted.

—Oh wow! That’s the biggest splash I ever saw!

The younger boy trundled up the ladder with careless abandon, emboldened by his brother’s success. He tiptoed across the shingles, then, haphazardly hurled himself from the roof in the direction of the pool. He landed with a resounding flop. Billy laughed grandly at the exhibition, paddling toward the pools edge.

Hoisting himself up in one fluid motion, Billy grinned back at his brother who floundered helplessly, gasping and gulping in the pool. Scampering up the aluminum ladder to the roof, he glanced down at Denny, who was still struggling to swim toward the side of the pool.

—Watch this one, Denny!

With blithe elegance, Billy danced across the rooftop—showing off. Finding his proper launch point, he dove for the pool, thrusting out his arms, like wings. He looked like an angel to Denny, hovering momentarily over the water in a heavenly vision—the sun, a glowing nimbus behind his head.

Hitting the water with hardly a splash, Billy knifed to the bottom of the pool with practiced precision. Surfacing rapidly, he rose with a shout to Denny, who was already at the base of the ladder.

—Don’t do anything dumb, Denny. You know I’m a better diver than you.

In defiance, Denny glared at Billy, stomping up the rungs of the gleaming ladder. With a reckless flourish, he steered himself from the ladder, scrambling toward a safe perch from which to perform his unpremeditated upcoming feat.

—Just watch this, you big dummy!

Suddenly a shadow emerged from the sliding glass door leading into the house.

—What’s all this shouting out here, boys?

Ingrid Granger inquired in the direction of the pool. She could see Billy peering up toward the top of the garage. She followed the boy’s gaze to the sibling source, who was skittering about nervously upon the pitched plane of the garage roof.

—John Dennis Granger! You get off that roof right now. You’re going to break your neck.

The statuesque blond woman rushed across the walk, toward the ladder, which was leaned up against the garage gutter

—Dennis, I said come down from there. Now!

—Well, Billy did it first.

Denny whined defensively, scuttling with apprehension toward the ladder. He had climbed up the ladder, but not down. And he had gradually become conscious of the height and the danger, and the gravity of his predicament. He began to cry.

—Dennis, honey, don’t cry. Just get down from there. Now, honey. Come down the ladder, Dennis. Now.

Denny slowly swung his leg around the top rung of the ladder, and with great hesitation lowered himself down.

Billy dove beneath the water, and with strong, smooth strokes, he swam to the bottom of the clear, blue pool.

UNreal gods

UNreal gods

UNreal gods

Those of you whom have been following these pages since whenever, know of my efforts in trying to create the perfect query letter to attract a literary agent to run with my novel, UNreal gods. Anywhere. Just run. 

Perhaps one day I will release a book comprised entirely of my valiant attempts to write the perfect haiku to describe the Bible—a similar assignment. Some examples of those haiku can be found down the line here.

However, that is beside the point, which is: I done went and published the damn thing myself. With the inestimable contribution of Buko, who did all the print/graphics work, we released it on February 28th, which would have been Billy’s fifty-seventh birthday. It’s available now (right now only in paperback—E-versions will follow soon—we rushed it to make that date) on Amazon here.

We have also made it available via a system whereby you can order the book through your favorite bookstore (please encourage them to carry the book!). For ordering, please refer to: UNreal gods by SP Clarke: ISBN# 9781495921452.

Many exciting developments are in store. Check out the unrealgods.com website. There you’ll find my extended Backstory to the writing of the book. But in addition we have just inaugurated the truth behind my fictional account of real events—as members of the real Unreal Gods act have now begun to contribute actual factual accounts of Billy and the band on Godsblog. This can only get more interesting as time goes by, so stay tuned. The real Unreal music will be available soon.

Please spread the word. This is probably the only extended work of fiction I’m likely to write. As this one was twenty-eight years in the cooking, I think you can see how that might be the case. I hope people who find interesting tales on this website will check out the book. I can assure that the style is very similar in construct: for better or worse.

Tales of the L-Shaped House on the S-Curve Part 2 (Summer Vacation)

The L-Shaped House

The L-Shaped House

Not yet to the age of emancipation from my father’s wallet, I went back home to Milwaukie about a week after finals completing my sophomore year at OCE. Fred and Varney resolved to remain in the L-Shaped house for the summer. Jacki offered to cut the rent in half, as Monmouth emptied of any potential tenants after June fifteenth anyway—better to make something from the immense space during those months than to have it sit empty. Besides we had been easier to work with than most of her renters.  I believe it fell to Fred to tell her that the rider lawnmower “quit working.”

Apparently now a retirement compound

Apparently now a retirement compound

Fred was our official Jacki emissary, as he had an inexplicable, winning charm with females of all ages—possibly because he radiated East Coast self-confidence, an earnest directness, uncommon to the region. Many males in town found his temperament too aggressive and felt threatened by him. But women didn’t sense Fred to be the least bit dangerous. They loved his engaging candor and sense of humor. He was harmless.

With Fred and Varney securely holding down the fort, Tom, Doug and I felt safe in returning to our respective homesteads in the outside world. The boys headed back to Bend—Doug back to Don the optometrist and loyal wife and mother Marilyn. Don and Marilyn generally frowned on Doug’s activities, whatever they were, as they frowned on their other four boys’ activities, and daughter Denise’s activities, and the activities of a large part of the population of the City of Bend.

Tom went home to Chuck and Evelyn and younger brother Chuck Junior, and the pale blue split-level over near Pilot Butte. I don’t remember what line of work Chuck was in, maybe something timber related. But he was a real square, upright guy—perhaps somewhat bewildered that his son and all the boy’s friends looked like damn hippies—but tolerant. I think the Schiffers were always a bit relieved that Chuck Junior had turned out all right.

No longer butter yellow, but still cheery

No longer butter yellow, but still cheery

Gypsy and I returned to my childhood home, the cheery, butter yellow, two-story abode on Firwood. And again the entire family was reunited: my parents, two brothers and sister. Gypsy added to the household animal population, which consisted of Yeller the canine patriarch, his young son Earl and their distant cousin the puffy, tufted orange incongruity that was known to be Wally. Wally was a cat of very insistent habits, several of which grew to be quite annoying, none of which I will enumerate here—sparing us all a needless ordeal.

Very much Wally-like

Very much Wally-like

Among his abundant peculiar behaviors—when outdoors in winter Wally liked to curl up under the hood of the cars in our driveway, especially if one had been recently driven. However that was not a prerequisite. He found such spaces to be adequate shelter from the elements under most conditions. It was dry and out of the wind. But he was still available, in case any of the other cats in the neighborhood wanted to conference with him. Even though he’d been fixed, he was a known playa.

Late for work one morning, my father dashed from the house to his prized Impala in an abrupt rush. He no sooner turned the engine over than orange fur began to fluffily float all over everywhere. Something of a home mechanic, Dad immediately recognized that to be quite an unusual condition for his car and shut it right off.

Eventually Wally wandered out from under the car, dazed, a bit close-cropped in places, but otherwise none the worse for wear. As cats go, he wasn’t particularly stupid, though it must be said that Wally did not learn from that incident, but continued with his practice—and thus was occasionally wounded in a similar fashion—never critically. He seemed to know enough to stay the hell away from the blades, belts and pulleys. So after a rude shearing he was always good to go—even though to see his fur flying around when trying to start the car was oftentimes quite a jarring experience for the operator.

Gypsy with neighborhood kid Matt

Gypsy with neighborhood kid Matt

Gypsy soon fell in with the pack and my family accepted her readily. She was a good dog and rarely barked. The same cannot be said of Yeller and Earl.

Earl-like. Don't be fooled.

Earl-like. Don’t be fooled.

Earl, especially, being a Golden Cock-a-Poo-Terr-Retriever, had quite a chip on his dewlap. It was because of his size, I think. Earl wasn’t nearly as sincere as, say, Rinnie. Earl didn’t much give a shit what you thought. Still, he wasn’t as indiscriminate as Wally. Wally lived on the edge.

Soon after my return, I reconnected yet again with Evie Neville—with whom I had an on-again, (mostly) off-again relationship. She had just graduated from high school and was anxious to strike out on her own, though in which direction and as to how such a thing would be accomplished had yet to suggest itself to her. Still she brimmed with ambitious confidence essential for a pretty young woman who thought maybe being a model might be fun.

She was tall and slender, with pale, dollar-green eyes and fine, long, light blond hair—so she certainly looked the part. By that point in the career of her life Evie had taken to wearing all black, all the time. Black, silk, long-sleeved blouse—or, for more informal occasions, a black leotard. Black silk maxi skirt and knee-high black leather boots. Her fashion ambulance bore no casual attires, nor a radiator of anything but cool. It was truly amazing that she had managed to achieve her own quite distinctive style among a sea of maroon and gold cheerleaders (such as herself). She played it both ways as no other girl could.

Jesus-like

Jesus-like

Most of three summers worth of chronicles involving Evie are in another of my “fictional” third person accounts of those real events. At some point I will probably link that up here. But it is a somewhat long read and would be a distraction to these particular stories. However, within those pages is the parable of the liberation of Jesus from the Humane Society pound on Columbia Boulevard in north Portland.

What’s not in there is how I eventually ended up with Jesus down at the L-Shaped house on the S-Curve the first week Jeff and I moved in that previous fall, nor how Evie absconded with him one night, about a month later, while I was away from the house—leaving no note of explanation.

If not for William’s account of the mysterious appearance of some shadowy woman all in black, evincing an air of confident certainty, coming to take Jesus (who apparently offered no resistance whatsoever, the bastard!) away, I might not have ever known what happened to him. I never found out where Evie took him—she couldn’t keep him at her family’s house, so who knows? She never once spoke of that dog again, nor would she allow me to bring him up in her presence. She would always awkwardly change the subject, sometimes ridiculously.

I’m not at all clear as to why I unfailingly let her off the hook for that sort of behavior—a desire for approval, I suppose. Maybe the sense of intrigue she brought to any occasion. Her skilled unavailability. But, one thing I will say for Evie: she was consistent. And so was I, for that matter. She always took advantage of me and I always let her.

Once I had finally settled in back at home it became readily evident that I needed to get out there and start earning some money. My dad reinforced that to be something of an imperative. I believe he’d had his heart set on my being clear of the nest once I graduated from high school. So I was already two years behind schedule, hence a substantial mote in his vision of freedom from the shackles of familial encumbrance. He had been a father for twenty years, nearly half his life, and I think he was growing weary of the day-to-day requirements of such a position. He didn’t get a lot of time to himself.

Not Evie. She wouldn't be caught dead in that get-up

Not Evie. She wouldn’t be caught dead in that get-up

So, off to work I went (half-heartedly). Perhaps thinking two half-hearts might make one fully operational component, Evie and I teamed up in our search for gainful employment. First stop: the fields of bountiful produce. We worked beans and raspberries. There wasn’t any bending over with those crops. Evie was concerned that her black wardrobe might be more easily soiled if she were forced to kneel in the dirt of a strawberry field.

Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill: Elixir to the Gods

Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill: Elixir to the Gods

After each morning of hard labor, we would purchase a pack of Kool menthol cigarettes and a bottle of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wine as a reward for our efforts. It’s true. I had begun smoking and drinking—proof positive that marijuana is indeed a gateway drug. I never would have turned to alcohol and tobacco if I had been at all able to procure weed.

Though it was far inferior, smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol was the closest Evie and I could legally (well, neither of us was twenty-one, but Evie had fake ID and knew how to use it) come to reproducing the grass experience. I did grow a few plants in the flowerbeds in front of the house. However they yielded no material of real consequence. And I made a few trips down to Monmouth over the course of the summer and there picked up a lid when I could. But possession was sporadic, acquisition unreliable, at best.

Next stop: lights out

Next stop: lights out

It soon became too hot beneath the June day sun to be doing the field hand deal for very long. I nearly passed out one sweaty afternoon. Sitting in the car outside a Circle K where we bought it, Evie and I downed the better part of a bottle of Boone’s Farm, while chain smoking several menthol cigarettes. I thought I had sunstroke.

Part of the problem was that I had not learned how to properly smoke a cigarette (nor did I know how to properly consume alcohol in any moderation, for that matter) like most kids had in high school. Untrained in the art, I would suck down a major hit from one of those Kools like it was a joint, holding a lung full of smoke until my eyes rolled, lips went numb, and all became black and still.

We turned from berry and bean picking toward a professional career of sales—door-to-door—peddling some kind of discount coupon books of dubious value, whose participating merchants may or may not have been aware of their contributions to the promotion. The operation was being run by low wattage KUIK-AM, a radio station broadcasting out of Hillsboro, which supposedly lent an air of credibility to the campaign, although it was unclear as to why that might be.

1959 Hillman Minx

1959 Hillman Minx

In an effort to perhaps subtly encourage my permanent relocation, Dad had acquired a car from somewhere—I think from Uncle Norm (not really a relation, but so designated as part of a family custom). It was a 1959 Hillman Minx whose ability to run on a consistent basis far outweighed its boxy British plainness. It had that in spades. The only thing the Hillman really had going in its favor was that it was the precise vehicle that the Beatles used in the Bahamas chase scene in their film Help!. The one I had was two toned, white and salmon. As far as I know Ringo was never stashed in the trunk of that car. There was a dead cat back there once though.

Along these lines

Along these lines

The vehicle certainly did come in handy for transporting us to various locations at which to hawk our incredibly valuable bargain booklets, only ten dollars. Hundreds of dollars of savings. Buy one get one free at Tastee-Freeze. A free Rub-a-Dub carwash with oil change at Bernard’s Garage.  Free wash with a perm at Della’s For Hair.

We were to receive a dollar for every book we sold. Our leads were generated by people who for some reason actually called in to the radio station in response to advertisements for the coupon books. It was a well-run operation for being utterly fly-by-night and more than likely a scam. In most cases potential customers were at least anticipating our arrival. If our client was a male, woe to he, as we’d turn Evie loose on him and she would close the sale typically within five minutes. As I have attempted to illustrate thus far, she did not take kindly to being told no. And she was incredibly gifted at ensuring that the situation rarely arose.

We generally generated sales of twenty booklets or more per day between us, the twenty dollar commission from which was not much—less than we were hauling down out in the fields. But Evie and I found it far more preferable to drive around smoking cigarettes with the windows rolled down and the radio blasting than to be standing out in a field somewhere sweating under the hot sun.

Each home we visited served as a portal into another world. Some of those places seemed vaguely familiar, resembling our own. But others were as incongruously divergent as black holes and rainbows. One particularly colorful black hole was Reverend Tom Phillips. He lived up on the side of Mount Tabor around Northeast 60th and Burnside—considerably outside our territory.

Our crew chief was a greasy little weasel named Vince, whom, with his bleach-blond girlfriend Randi, managed five or six of us “teams” from out of a stodgy motel room on McLoughlan Boulevard at the north end of Milwaukie. Vince told us we’d be doing him a really big favor if we’d take care of the guy. He promised he’d make it up to us big time if we’d cover the call.

Vinnie

Vinnie

We knew that was probably a load of hooey. Vince’s reputation among fellow teammates was low and falling fast. Some had taken to calling him Ratso when he was out of earshot, for his striking resemblance to Dustin Hoffman’s character in Midnight Cowboy—which had won an Academy Award earlier in the year. Vince’s ability to scrounge and cajole seemed quite comparable as well.

Reverend Tom Phillips was a crusty old barnacle, with a fusty, slicked-down gray comb-over and misshapen wire-rimmed glasses. He lived in a decent looking brick duplex in a good neighborhood and answered our knock at his door aswoon with rapturous expectation. Wearing a dingy white undershirt and worn brown slacks, as a prospect for a sale, he looked pretty dismal. He eagerly invited us into his home, where we discovered (too) many florid tapestries and paintings of naked people Adam and Eving in paradises of golden suns and blondness. Old Tom eyed Evie hungrily, as if she were a glazed ham.

Heaven as according the Reverend Tom

Heaven as according the Reverend Tom

As to the denomination of Reverend Tom’s fervency, one would suspect Church of Soft Biblical Porn—Old Testament. For before we could even begin to deliver our sales pitch about the fantastic savings our coupon books could provide the Reverend Tom for all of his gustatory and car care requirements, he launched into a hare-brained hallucinatory depiction of his version of Heaven.

From what we could gather, as he was (a little too) effusive on the subject, there’s a lot of sex in heaven. Everyone runs around naked with big boners and bouncing boobs, and the sun shines all day, every day—that’s important. It appeared, from the Reverend Tom’s description anyhow, that Heaven was being operated by junior high school boys.

At some point it dawned on me that, among other things, the Reverend Tom was also probably a bit of a multimedia artist, and had himself created the abundant art by which we were surrounded. I don’t think he got out much. And my guess is that his church’s congregation numbered one.

You can call me Doc

You can call me Doc

Familiar with the procedure, I had received my own ordination from the Universal Life Church, and was hoping to come up with enough spare cash at some point to obtain a Doctor of Divinity degree. It was a popular thing to do at the time. I had the intention of becoming the next Reverend Doctor Billy Graham D.D., though I can’t remember why. But one would assume the good Reverend Tom was, first and foremost, attempting to use his home church as a tax dodge.

Prancing

Prancing

So, while Evie made a sincerely valiant attempt at enticing the Reverend Tom to purchase the damn ten dollar coupon book we had been sent there to sell him, the spry old guy was on his own mission to entice Evie to remove her clothes and pray with him there in the living room next to the coffee table. He didn’t know Evie nearly as well as I did—well enough to know that she had no desire to be the sort of model to shed her clothes. She wanted to put them on and prance around in them.

Just the same, that pitch must have worked well enough for the Reverend in the past that he felt comfortable making the attempt with her. The picture of some ancient dame kneeling naked with him next to that coffee table is a false memory I still cannot flush from my mind. However, the Reverend Tom’s proposal did manage to light Evie’s fuse, so we emerged post-haste from the church before she could blow up on him. Lord knows what that might have provoked! Well, I have a pretty good idea, but why go into that here?

Frustrated, Evie and I headed back to the motel. It was Friday afternoon and we were due to be paid our commission for two weeks of sales: over two hundred dollars. We walked through the door of the motel room office, and Vince was sitting on the edge of the one of the double beds, with his hand matter-of-factly extended in anticipation of the ten dollars he expected to receive for the sale he’d sent us out to secure.

lit-fuse-bombInstead Evie flung the coupon book at him with considerable force. It glanced off the bed and fell to the floor. Vince bent over to pick it up, mockingly complaining that “the help” needed to take better care of the merchandise. Unaware that Evie’s fuse had never been fully extinguished after our encounter with the Reverend Tom, she replied unambiguously that he could go fuck himself, and give us our money. Now, asshole!

Vinnie found something about her demand rather comical. Chuckling under his breath, he smirked arrogantly and sneered that Frank wasn’t “gonna make it over tonight,” and we’d have to “wait ‘til tomorrow to get paid.” Evie had plans for her portion of our commission, and for that matter, so did I—as she was going to buy a lid of grass with some of her money. I also had plans for my own share as well.

Vinnie pissed

Vinnie pissed

But I was a bit more conscious of an element of menace about Vinnie that Evie either didn’t perceive or didn’t give a shit about. So as I began to say, yeah okay, Vinnie: well, see ya’ tomorrow, Evie unleashed a fury of threats unheralded among any I had previously witnessed—and those had been monumentally torrential in nature. The threats she was making then and there had to do with calling the police in right away. She was prepared to report that Vinnie had raped her and that he and Randi were running a prostitution ring.

I stood stark stunned by the words I heard coming out of her mouth. They were so expertly delivered, that it did not seem to me as if it were the first time she was running through that particular script. While she raged at poor, helpless Vinnie, my mind was struggling to conceive of a situation where she might have used that piece of drama in the past, but I was at a loss. There was a lot I didn’t know about that girl. And it’s probably just as well.

Vinnie soon found it imperative to get a hold of Frank right away, in order to just shut that bitch up. So he called over to the radio station, where Frank was ostensibly conducting important broadcasting business of some sort (possibly mob-related), and pleaded with his boss to bring over two hundred and forty-eight dollars right away. Hearing the obvious desperation in his young charge’s voice, Frank said okay, he’d be over in half an hour.

Drs. Steve Hardy and Phil Hardy of General Hospital

Drs. Steve Hardy and Phil Brewer of General Hospital

Upon receipt of that assurance, Evie snapped on the TV that was sitting on the dresser at her side, and primly plopped down on the bed opposite, Vinnie. She directed an icy glare at him, while patting the space next to her and signaling with her head for me to join her. I wasn’t going to cross her either. Vinnie and I sat watching General Hospital petrified at the prospect of displeasing the girl any further.

Frank possibly

Frank possibly

Fortunately, for all involved Frank arrived just as Dark Shadows was coming on. Frank was a large, imposing figure. He had the voice and bearing of Orson Wells, but he looked more like Broderick Crawford, with a broad, round red face and thin hair combed straight back. Frank entered the motel room with a check in his hand, prepared to impart a stern lecture about common courtesy or whatever—of which Evie was having none.

She nudged me sharply with her elbow and in one motion unexpectedly lunged. Snatching the check from Frank’s fingers she sprinted past him out the door. I hadn’t even managed to stand up yet and I had the distinct impression that Frank and Vinnie meant to do me harm, or to at least advise me as to how my girlfriend should oughta learn to show a little more respect and all, and maybe this’ll help me remember to tell her. So, with a similar jolt, I busted past Frank and out the door.

It wasn’t yet five o’clock, so there was still time for us to cash the check. We never returned to our positions with KUIK radio, although I frequently referenced mine for many years on subsequent job applications. Once the station changed it’s call letters, after not more than a few years—I was free to pad the length and import of the job into something rather impressive on paper. It may have even helped me to later get hired by the Postal Service. Better hire him, he worked in radio.

By then it was late July and any summer jobs that might have been available earlier in the season were long gone. I had no intention whatsoever of heading back out to the fields to pick zucchinis in the August dog days deciding instead to lay low, and avoid at all costs interactions with my Dad. He was more than a reasonable chap, but I believe that after twenty years he was just generally sick of me. Sick of me sitting on his sofa, in his home, eating his food—playing guitar and singing shitty songs in front of the TV while he worked his butt off all day.

Communing just over there

Communing just over there

For my part, I only hoped to make it through the final month of the summer without tangling with him. I tried to be out of the house by the time he got home around four in the afternoon, staying away until ten or eleven when he would hit the hay. I would go visit friends, or take my guitar up into the wilds of Washington Park, to write songs or poems or letters while communing with nature. And of course, Evie and I got together regularly.

Early one warm evening, while the sun was still shining brightly, Evie and I decided to ride our bicycles from her house on Lake Road out Oatfield Road toward Gladstone. That was a fairly pastoral journey back then, as the area was not nearly so built up as now.  It was the perfect time of day to be riding—no traffic, and a cool breeze blew through the trees.

Mama Possum

We rode south on Oatfield past Evergreen Avenue near the house where my family lived when we first moved to Oregon. That was the place where I was attacked by a possum and experienced the beams of light when I was just a young child. We cycled slowly down the narrow road another mile, passing Ray and Jean’s old house where our clan had briefly stayed when we initially arrived from California.

Evie and I continued down Oatfield, leisurely pedaling for several more miles before we finally decided to head back. As we returned the way we had come, we passed an old man walking on the shoulder of the road along side the steep sheer embankment on our right. He had white hair, and wore a faded, blue cotton shirt and fraying gray work pants. Even from behind he seemed strangely familiar. As we cautiously steered around him, a vague shudder rippled over me when he paused and grimly glowered at us coasting by.

We had ridden no farther than fifteen or twenty feet when I jammed on my brakes and turned to look at the old man. But he had vanished. I asked Evie if she had seen him. Yes. I asked her what became of him. She didn’t know. Maybe he took a path off the road. Not without climbing gear he didn’t. There was no way such an old man was going to scramble up the tall cleft of dirt next to which he was walking. Nor was it likely that he was capable of jumping from the pavement on the other side of the road, as the drop down from there was nearly vertical. No. He had simply disappeared.

Old man at the side of the road

The ride back was quiet, while I tried to recall where I had seen that old guy before. He looked very familiar, but no telling from where. He sort of looked like Carl Sandburg. The image of Carl Sandburg brought to mind the old man from childhood, whom I’d occasionally seen walking on Oatfield. The one who would evaporate into empty air whenever we drove past him in the family car.

ghost1Stopping abruptly at the recollection, I exclaimed to Evie my certainty that the old guy was a ghost! She felt it far more likely that he had simply rappelled forty feet up or down a precipitous cliff. That made more sense. For whatever reason, she seemed entirely unwilling to consider the idea that the old man wasn’t real—as we understand reality, anyway. It seemed to me that the realm of the supernatural would have been right up her alley. But she never wanted any part of it and that instance was no different. We made our way back to her house without saying another word.

In that final month before returning to school I made a couple of pilgrimages to Monmouth to convene with Fred and Varney at the hacienda, and to visit Jilly—who had stayed in town in an attempt to sort out her relationship issues (to which I was contributing). She had just moved from the house in the alley she had been sharing with Karen and Julie over to a place on Monmouth Avenue, on the other side of Main Street from the college.

Truth be told, her “place” consisted of a mammoth room on the second story of a big, old, pastel green house that had been a boarding house, most likely since its construction in 1883 by the Whitman family. Five young women shared the house. All of the bedrooms were upstairs, four on Jilly’s floor and one more in the spacious third story attic. They shared the kitchen, the cavernous living and dining rooms and several anterooms on the first floor, as well as a full basement.

wallpaper1Jilly’s room was decorated with the original eighty year-old wallpaper, white, aged-to-golden brown, extravagantly ornate with flowers and vines. It had begun to bubble up and peel in places, exposing vintage one-by-ten wallboard underneath. Since her landloard was planning on remodeling the premises at some point in the near future, Jilly was allowed to do what she pleased with the room. Her first order of business was to yank down all the wallpaper.

I turned up at Jilly’s one day to find her atop a stepladder carefully scribing a line with an Exacto knife along the edge between the wall and ceiling in her room. She was almost finished with her task, a perfect scroll of stale wallpaper trailing behind her, curling to the floor. The walls were bare. While the old wood slats lent the room a rustic look, her intention was to adorn them with a new covering. For her purposes she selected burlap, because it was inexpensive and apparently fit the potato famine motif she had in mind. She had several rolls of the stuff, four feet wide, leaning in the corner.

Wallgrade burlap

Wallgrade burlap

It was high quality burlap with a very dense thread count. It’s not clear what was meant to be done with the stuff if not to cover walls. Probably not the best material for sheets. And burlap clothing went out as a fashion statement at the end of the Great Depression. But Jilly was nothing if not original. She was doubtless well ahead of the interior decoration trend arc of the day with the concept of burlap wall covering. And it was cheap!

Because of my greater height and assumed expertise with a hammer, the task of fastening the burlap along the top border fell to me. I began with the inside walls, carefully affixing the fabric with carpet tacks. We painstakingly doubled the material at all the seams, so the resultant covering looked surprisingly good. I know I was surprised.

It took us about four hours to get around to the final, long outside wall on the south side of the room. I had been hearing a subtle, low hum while doing the west wall that for quite a while I attributed to nearby construction. It remained steady, though hardly audible. Nothing seemed to come of it.

Until I began hammering in the uppermost corner where the west and south walls converged. The hum began to grow louder, and the pitch rose a minor third. I glanced at Jilly with a puzzled look on my face, as a couple of bees began to crawl through the cracks between the planks. Heartlessly, I smacked them with the tack hammer and went about my business. But the hum kept growing louder.

Suddenly the burlap I had just tacked down began to bubble and bulge with a certain fury that did not bode well for the completion of my undertaking. Bees began crawling out from the unattached portion of burlap, spilling from all of the gaps between the boards, crawling across the ceiling, and flooding onto the floor. A cloud of angry bees began to gather and some were coming after Jilly and me. We ran screaming from the room, slamming the door behind us. Jilly retrieved a towel from one of her new roommates, using it to block the space beneath the door.

Angry honey

Angry living honey

We sat on the floor beside the entry to her room, bewildered and befuddled. The hum inside continued to grow in intensity. Cracking the door open slightly, we peered inside to see that a thick swarm had formed on the bare wall. They were terribly agitated—the wall swirling wildly, painted with angry living honey.

bees 3Seeing as neither of us were beekeepers, that was that for our workday. Jilly’s landlord was surprisingly understanding about the episode. Fortuitously he had a friend who happened to be an apiarist—who came over the next day and extricated the little bastards. No bees were harmed in the incident, but for those I squished with the hammer. Jilly had completed her project by the time I returned to Monmouth two weeks later to embark upon junior year. The walls looked very nice and her room smelled like a big stack of gunnysacks.

gunny sack

 

********************************************************************************************************************

The Bible XIII

Three angels came back
From Sodom and Gomorrah:
Gave a bad report.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tales From the L-Shaped House on the S-Curve Part 1

Picture 4

The L-Shaped House Today

The compound really was L-Shaped. The curve was maybe more accurately a variation of a Z, as the two sharp corners were at right angles. I believe we referred to it as the S-Curve because there was a yellow warning sign erected by the state up the road from us indicating just such a thing. I think it was the sign that designated the curve as being an S, rather than a Z. These concepts didn’t arise from out of nowhere. We didn’t arbitrarily make such grand proclamations.

Birds-eye View of the S-Curve

Birds-eye View of the S-Curve

And it may be true, too, that the corners weren’t exactly at a tight ninety degrees, but were maybe a bit soft at the shoulders and banked slightly, most likely serving as a means to buffer Chief Shellenbarger’s house from oncoming drunks leaving Monmouth and failing to negotiate that first turn in the road over to Independence—where they would be heading, no doubt to buy beer. Imagine our good fortune. We at the L-Shaped House on the S-Curve were availed of the protection of Independence Police Chief Harvey Shellenbarger, who lived just across the little side road on the east side of our property.

It would seem that our house, situated in Monmouth, Oregon, twenty miles from anything even remotely resembling civilization would not have required the amount of security we were afforded. For, living to the other side of us, on the west side of the house, was Monmouth Police Chief Ron Miller. Chief Miller had a small gentleman’s farm of a few acres behind his property and ours, where sheep grazed peacefully and the skies were not cloudy all day. We never spoke to either of those guys, that I know of, but kept a respectful distance—although at some point they must have become aware of our presence there.

Settlers

Missourian Sight-seers

Monmouth was a dry town at the time. I think that finally got voted out about ten years ago. Monmouth not selling alcohol was the raison d’etre for the town of Independence. Actually, truth be told, Independence was out there first, when the wagon loads of sight-seers from Independence, Missouri first hit the valley back in the 1840s.

About ten years later a crazy religious faction (who could have seen that coming?) from the Independence party, headed by some guy with a chunk of property, broke off and moved the (then) considerable distance of a couple miles west to found a college and a town, or vice versa. They named it Monmouth—after someone’s hometown back in Illinois.

And, in order to form a more perfect anomaly in the region, the land for the college was deeded to the town with the wild-assed stipulation that no demon alcohol would ever slip the lips of some mid-19th century coed trying to bust out of his or her petticoats. I guess the deed was secured for a thousand years or something, because it took a city-wide vote to finally get booze (legally) into Monmouth—even though the law had never stopped anyone before anyway. I bet that when they legalized booze in Monmouth, the Independence City Council had to have an emergency budget meeting. Gnashing of teeth.

Tap Room Conviviality

Tap Room Conviviality

So, at that time, there was a near constant modern-day wagon train trekking to Roth’s Foodliner for beer and wine, or to the liquor store in downtown Indep for the hard stuff. The Cooler was the first available tavern, about a half a mile from the City Limits sign as you entered from Monmouth. But the Tap Room in downtown Independence was the preferred destination for most OCE students, prices being the key variable, one would suppose—that and perhaps the perpetual atmosphere of alcohol and hormone-fueled conviviality that forever foamed from their doors.

And, as these drunk minions eventually found their way back to their dorms and apartments, and classes the next day, the first structures they would encounter upon entry back into the City of Monmouth would be, from left to right: Chief Shellenbarger’s ugly, landlady green bastion, our white haven of sweet surrender, and Chief Miller’s stately sky-blue pleasure dome plumped upon a little artificial hill, sheep passively foraging about the grounds.

Prior to the arrival of Tom and Doug into the household, the L-Shaped House on the S-Curve was just an ordinary innocuous ‘50s ranch house of oversized proportions. The house itself was a massive drab white, rectangular structure, with a doublewide drive-through carport that adjoined a workshop area that was the size of a small Italian restaurant.

The Pioneer Family Living Out in the Workshop

The Pioneer Family Living Out in the Workshop

Our landlady, Jacki, lived in Salem and had a bunch of stuff stored out there from after the divorce, so we used the space for storage too, as much as was necessary given that there were, after all, college students living there with little more than a pot to piss in. Just the same, empty, that workshop could have comfortably housed one of those pioneer families from the 1840s. It was considerably bigger than the “apartment” Masa, Jeff and I had shared the year before.

Tom and Doug moved in the day after Fred showed them the room—about two hours after Jeff had cleared the nondescript remainder of his belongings from the space. Packing his 1968 Austin Healey Sprite convertible with that last load, Jeff lovingly encouraged his shiny precious red beauty in the driveway to a final, orgasmic wail. And in one effusive burst, he sped off in a spray of gravel with a hearty hi-yo go fuck yourself.

Comparable Ford Van

Comparable Ford Van

The two new roommates arrived presently in a boxy, nondescript pale-green Ford van. The first thing they loaded into the sizable room they were going to share was an enviable record collection. In an instant the ambience within the residence metamorphosed. There were officially four hippies living there­—or hippies by Monmouth standards, anyway. Free thinkers, with crazy notions. Possibly subversive. In a dry town. Four hippies and a tennis bum who was rarely around.

They were from Bend. Doug Sherman was a year older than Tom and I. He had spent his freshman and sophomore years attending Portland State University, working on a Geography major. But, instead of continuing with the program, he impulsively opted to join Tom in Monmouth to become a History teacher. Doug was of moderate height, slouchy, a little mushy. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and had a scraggly beard, with thin, dull brown, shoulder-length hair.

A transfer from Central Oregon Community College, Tom Schiffer was very handsome. He had a close-cropped full beard, with long thick, wavy brown hair that reached his collar. Sturdily slender, nearly six-feet tall—as with so many other guys in my circle, he too had been a wrestler in high school and, built such as he was, probably wrestled in the 170 lb. weight class. He had indelibly blue eyes and a model’s grin. And he happened to be a pretty nice guy, though clearly crafty-sly and quite intelligent.

Doug, of course, was immediately identifiable as a 99.9999 percentile proto-genius. He spoke. In. Biting. Clipped. Clenched. Phrases—which typically concluded with a sarcastic summation and a wry, rattling chuckle, more often than not expressing an ambiguous sense of hopeless futility couched within his dim worldview. His encyclopedic knowledge on practically any subject often came in handy. Valuable and entertaining. He was a footnote factory. A human reference book.

In an apparent attempt to ingratiate us with our neighbors—once they had settled in Tom and Doug conspired with Fred to launch a kegger of titanic proportions. Since I did not imbibe, I had no real skin in that game. However the twist came with Doug’s unique idea to charge three dollars for entry into the affair and maybe make a profit to be put toward rent and bills. For that I was more than willing to chip in fifteen bucks in order to secure a keg from the Cooler, reasonably sure I could make my money back. And anyway, I was just going to stay in my room, so what the hey, let the beer kegs roll!

Kegger: L-Shaped House Style

Kegger: L-Shaped House Style

And that’s precisely what happened. I stayed in my room as well-nigh one hundred people showed up to drink beer in our living room, dining room and kitchen, with the stereo set at volume: stun, and weed enough to keep the magic happening. And there was plenty of room for all of it. That’s how immense just that portion of the house was.

Lonnie Mayne with Frank Bonnema

Lonnie Mayne with Frank Bonnema

It was Saturday night and things were really rolling by nine or so, by which time I was safely ensconced in my bedroom with a quart of Royal Crown Cola and a bag of Doritos, preparing to watch Portland Wrestling on Channel 12. I had taken a liking to the new announcer Frank Bonnema whose cheeky sarcasm and knowing suspension of disbelief suited the inane behaviors of the participants. While pointlessly strumming my trusty 12-string guitar in time to the Hamm’s, the beer refreshing, commercial that preceded the commencement of the program, a rap came at my bedroom door.

I bade entre and in wafted a tall, spare woman in a long, pale blue, flower print dress. Wild, raven, witching hair flew about her face, a country sunny face, with frightened hurt brown eyes. She introduced herself as Mary, whom I surmised to be Tom’s girlfriend, Mary—whose description he had given me on several occasions and she fit.

Hesitantly, she asked if she could hang out with me. She had caught a ride from Bend with a friend earlier in the day to pay Tom a surprise visit at his new domicile. But she was the one dumbfounded by the chaos she encountered upon her arrival, and like a frightened doe sought refuge far away from the frenzied din.

Having always been sympathetic to the plight of miserable panicked creatures, I reluctantly acceded— despite the fact that her presence created an intrusion upon the personal space I so dogged guarded, and was disinclined to frivolously relinquish. But she seemed pretty desperate. So yeah, okay. Sure. C’mon in.

Mary sat down on Varney’s bed, which hadn’t been slept in for weeks, taking stock of the mostly empty room. Like all other aspects of the house, it was grandiosely spacious, with just our two single beds pushed distantly apart to opposing mucus green walls. A ridiculously massive closet lay at the far end of the facility, across a great, yawning canyon of gray-carpeted floor.

A small, sunflower yellow wooden table was situated beneath the window wall between us, upon which I had placed my enormous black, reel-to-reel tape recorder (with its own built-in amplifier and speakers). Next to it, Varney set his portable Philco stereo with turntable and detachable speakers. He had about fifty albums stacked on his side of the table. I had maybe double that many on my side.

As we took in the preliminary matches, Mary gave me a bit of her version of their back-story (I had heard Tom’s, of course). They had gone together in high school, but started to drift apart when they both began attending COCC. During winter term Tom unexpectedly elected to transfer to OCE and move in with Doug in Monmouth. I knew they were on again off again. According to Tom they were off again. But from what Mary was saying she was under the impression they were still on.

The Incorrigible Von Steigers

The Incorrigible Von Steigers

We watched the Von Steigers take on Tony Borne and Lonnie Mayne in a match for the Northwest Tag Team championship. The Borne and Mayne team won on a blatant disqualification: the Von Stigers seemingly incapable of containing their contempt for the rules of the sport. Meanwhile, Mary told me about her childhood spent in the desolate southeastern Oregon desert town of Burns—our conversation seeming as tawny gray and windblown as the days of her cheerless formative years.

That one being an unquestionable success, there were other keggers to follow, each better attended and more efficiently managed than its predecessor. It was a very tightly run operation, in which I participated in the preparation before and the renewal efforts after those events, but in the interval of their duration, I remained safely secreted in my room, secure from any unnecessary inane interaction. And for enduring that occasional imposition, our rent and bills were paid for the entire spring term. What’s more there were residuals, which were used to purchase large quantities of top-grade marijuana. So it was a very happy household, indeed.

With Varney AWOL and Fred spending the preponderance of his time at Campbell Hall making things, Tom, Doug and I pretty much had the hacienda to our selves—the Three Musketeers. We spent afternoons after class smoking weed, watching TV with the sound off, and turning each other on to our favorite albums.

sabathDoug was drawn to the harder, heavier or more primitive bands—MC 5, Steppenwolf, Deep Purple, Sabbath and Vanilla Fudge, the Velvet Underground and the Grateful Dead. Tom was a Zep fan. He loved the Who, Cream, Hendrix, and the Doors. Beginning at the Beatles, I was more of a pop man myself, with a bent toward folk rock. I held Simon and Garfunkel in high esteem and had become quite enamored of the Moody Blues, and the likes of Nilsson, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Bee Gees, and especially Jethro Tull.

So, between the three of us and with what Fred and Varney had—there were well over five-hundred albums in the house, as well as a wide selection of 8-track and reel-to-reel tape recordings. Our rock and roll audio library was comparable in breadth and scope to that found at Alexandria, though there is little doubt that we had the superior selection of Rolling Stones albums.

In the interest of scientific inquiry and my never-ending quest to rediscover the Land of Cartoons, I devised an experiment undocumented in the annals of all recorded music. Quintuple Abbey Road. Others may have attempted to summit that illusory musical mountain in the past. But it was I who had the inspiration, the stamina, the dedication and the abundant free time to conceive and accomplish such a lofty goal.

Abbey Road

Abbey Road

You may well ask and I might be inclined to tell you: what the hell is quintuple Abbey Road? And just such a question would immediately set you apart from the typical American who walks through life unencumbered by such weighty concerns. The simple explanation is this: Quintuple Abbey Road is an inter-dimensional jaunt through the crack in time. Sure. That may sound simple enough. But just try it.

Obviously, five sources with the capability of reproducing sound will be required. And five identical recordings capable of being played on those apparatuses will be essential as well. In my case, I chose the Beatles’ Abbey Road, because I had a vinyl copy, as well as a reel-to-reel version. Doug, Varney and Fred had the album in the vinyl format as well. It was the only album in the house of which we had that many. We had four copies each of Bookends and In Search of the Lost Chord. But, for reasons unknown, five seemed to be the proper number and the Beatles’ Abbey Road seemed to be just the right recording to do the job. And thus it was so.

Inter-dimensional Speaker placement

Inter-dimensional Speaker Placement

Conceive if you will, the notion: sound sources in various locations within a structure simultaneously playing the same album. And you might logically reply: Well that’s not so difficult to do with speakers. Simply intersperse them around your site and voila! Ah, but what I was suggesting was not a single sound emanating from a single source via an array of speakers. I proposed multiple sounds operating from separate sources—invoking the fourth dimension: Time, and the fifth dimension: a perpendicular to that. A definitive audio hologram.

And so I set about accomplishing my task. I equipped each of my sources with their specific versions of Abbey Road. Then, beginning in our room with my reel-to-reel tape recorder as the control mode, I began the process by playing Side Two. “Here Comes the Sun” was the lead track. As George Harrison’s acoustic guitar began to chime through the speakers of the recorder, I set the needle down on Varney’s copy on his turntable. After some effort I synchronized the tracks so that they were essentially in unison. Then I sprinted into Tom and Doug’s room and got another version in sync there on Doug’s modular stereo.

Quintuple Abbey Road

Quintuple Abbey Road

By that time the three recordings had begun to fall out of synch slightly, at varying speeds, so jogging back into my room, I got the two versions coordinated there and dashed back to Doug’s stereo and got that matched up. Then on to Fred’s room to get a fourth copy started, before rushing back to the start to re-synchronize everything. It was like one of those stage acts where the acrobatic entertainer keeps plates spinning on poles.

Finally, with four Abbey Road’s emanating from what sounded like a quartet of separate dimensions, I sped to get my vinyl copy of the album started on Tom’s big stereo system in the living room. And, after another circuit of synchronizations, they were all more or less coordinated. The heavenly choir of “Because” radiated a thousand proclamations, resounding throughout the house. It was as if Abbey Road were beaming from all facets of the entire planet.

I lit a righteous celebratory doobie and strolled the grounds in a state of profound awe. The vortex of sound indistinctly shaded and shifted and faceted with every step. Time itself slowly unspun through the course of “You Never Give Me Your Money,” creating a gaping rip in the fabric of the universe. And, as the various recordings ever so slightly fell out of sequence with one another, massive clouds of sound were slung into the silent void—the sun casting strands of molten plasma into the depths of space. In other words—Cartoons realized!

Dali Pancake

Dali Pancake

It was in that precise moment of matchless rapture that Tom and Doug happened to walk through the front door after a hard day of classes. Except for me, the house appeared empty. Yet the mayhem and bedlam were biblical in proportion—Abbey Road brimming and spilling deluge all over everywhere. The Jericho horn of Joshua pealed thick sonic syrup, which dripped upon the Dali-esque pancakes of all humanity. The boys headed straight for the communal weed basket. Gold-old-old-en-en-en slum-um-um-bers-bers-ers….

After great deliberation I subsequently determined that quintuple Abbey Road was the maximum number achievable in our world. I became convinced that sextuple Abbey Road would cause universal consciousness to collapse in upon itself, becoming a black hole of excessively heavy musical gravity. In addition, there was a new deterrent.  A prohibition had been enacted by the household preventing me from conducting further experiments in the realm of multiple source sound generation. So I sought my kicks elsewhere.

Beyond my own arcane weirdness, that sort of behavior was indicative of a communal penchant for the peculiar that would play itself out in many manifold and myriad ways in the days and months to come. My experiment only served as inauguration to the festivities. Our appreciation for the absurd was boundless, and we never ceased to find new and unique ways to express it. In fact that became our mission in life.

We started slowly. It was a natural progression. We didn’t force things. As a result of the regularly occurring keggers, the L-Shaped House on the S-Curve quickly began to acquire something of a reputation. In a town of seven thousand inhabitants, that wasn’t so hard to do. Especially when approximately eight percent of that population had been to a kegger down at that very L-Shaped House on the S-Curve.

As the impossibly perfect spring unfolded, we determined that we wanted to take the party outdoors for some fun in the sun. Because we had been severely neglecting the maintenance of the extensive grounds, the grass had soon grown to two-feet high beneath the hot daily sun. Even though Jacki had provided us with a rider lawnmower, none among us was much interested in taking the thing out for a spin to knock down some lawn.

So, rather than to tamp down a clearing in our fields, we decided instead to conduct informal afternoon parties on the roof of the house. It was a very wide roof, of course, capable of accommodating twenty or thirty people up there comfortably. We typically shot for a three to one ratio between women and men whom we invited up, with the intent of lending an air of exclusivity to the affairs. Hence, given those parameters, there was always an abundance of scantily clad young women frolicking about the property, a condition to which there were never any objections lodged.

Roof Party Here

Roof Party Here

To enhance the surroundings, we hauled Varney’s stereo speakers up there. With my tape deck hooked up to his system, I’d put extended reel-to-reel tapes on to play all afternoon. And we’d sit up there, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes—but no weed (we weren’t that brazen)—listening to tunes and waving at friends as they drove by in their cars, honking their horns.

Sadly, in early May, Doug thought he detected a bow in the roof, as if a huge load of snow had weighed down upon it for an extended period. After due consideration, we deemed that it would be improper for us, as mere tenants after all, to destroy Jacki’s roof (further) and we were forced to discontinue the roof parties, after throwing maybe only ten or twelve of them. We would have to search for other things to destroy.

That opportunity fell to us a few weeks later, when Jacki asked us to please knock down the grass. She was receiving complaints from the city. So the household, en masse, circled the rider mower with a sense of wonder and fear. None of us were particularly mechanically inclined. Just getting the damn thing started proved to be a challenge. But between the five us, we roommates managed to get it running.

mowerWe alternated at first. Tom captained the maiden voyage, navigating the perimeter of the property with great difficulty. The mower kept clogging with grass and stalling. In the end we ended up setting the blade as high as it would go, with the new plan of making two passes. We determined that in the long run it would save time and it did. The rest of us followed with our own opportunities to operate the machine. After a couple of circuits each, we became rather matter-of-fact about the process, performing occasionally reckless maneuvers in order to impress the others, or ourselves. Somebody.

zamboni2Once the first course was run, the grass was still eight inches high, but manageable at that point, so we prepared for the second tour. Confident that we had the process well under control, and to stave off boredom, we began to devise various gymnastics to perform atop the machine as it mowed the remainder of the lawn. Varney was the first, striking an awkward pose. With one foot planted upon the seat and one hand guiding the steering wheel, Varney hoisted a leg behind himself, and an arm pointing straight ahead, most resembling an ungainly ice skater riding a small Zamboni.

So the horse was out of the barn at that point and the game of one-upsmanship was by then fully engaged. Teams were formed, each creating an ever more farcical spectacle. The coda came with all five of us clustered on top of the poor tin beast. It did its best to bear up under the weight of a half ton, but as we made the final turn, it stopped abruptly, belching a big black cumulus cloud. It wouldn’t restart. Actually we couldn’t even get the motor to turn. It was obviously seized. Uh-oh. Jacki…

hay 3Well, we didn’t tell her about it right away—if we told her at all. But in an effort to ameliorate in advance any effects of our delinquency (if it were to become revealed), the five of us scrupulously raked the yard, gathering the grass into a great six-foot tall heap of clippings right in front of the house, clearly visible to cars making the turn on the S-Curve. When finished, we took turns making flying leaps into the mound. When all was said and done, we reconvened the haystack into a perfect pile.

As a gesture of good faith, I crafted a sign out of a section of wood and a two-by-four. Upon it, with letters ten inches high in bright, day-glo colors I wrote “Free Grass,” and posted it at the top of Mount Lawn. As far as I recall, there were no repercussions with that, other than the Monmouth fire chief coming down from town a month later to tell us we had a fire-hazard on our hands. I think we ended up spreading that straw in the rhododendron beds.

There was a real fire in the neighborhood one day, at a house down Davis Street, the little lane that extended south from Chief Shellenbarger’s house. Jilly Bing was visiting, maybe waiting for Fred. We were still just becoming acquainted at that time—his friend then, in my mind. We were both being hesitant and shy and eccentric. She was sitting on the kitchen counter vacantly staring off into the ether, when suddenly a couple fire trucks went roaring down the tiny road, bells and whistles lit up officiously.

fire1A house located near the very back of our property was aflame and sustaining moderate damage. From the patio we could see a half-dozen heavily protected firemen, drenched with sweat, laboring under the hot sun, as they trudged fire hoses from the trucks in the direction of the fierce blaze. They were making every effort to quell the persistent fire before it could spread over to Chief Miller’s grazing fields behind us.

quikAs she witnessed the swelter of their toil, a pang of compassion suddenly befell Jilly. She sprung to action with the aim of rewarding the fearless firemen. Quickly searching the cupboards, she set about the enactment of her plan. We had to make hot chocolate for them—as according to some tradition I had yet to ever hear about. But, I was not about to question Jilly’s motives when she was undertaking such a selfless cause, I directed her to Fred’s big can of Nestle’s Quik. He loved chocolate milk.

nesbitts1She grabbed the can and ran to the refrigerator in search of milk. Nothing. All we had was one can of evaporated milk, and the remnants of enough powdered milk to shake out about a cup of the stuff. Unless she pulled a loaves and fishes style enhancement of the milk supply the firemen’s hot chocolate was going to be pretty damn watery. Fortuitously, to her way of thinking anyway, someone had stashed a couple 28-ounce bottles of Nesbitt’s orange soda in the refrigerator.

Without hesitation, she snapped up the Nesbitt’s and scurried over to the stove. She filled Fred’s big stockpot with the soda, the milk products, cocoa and a quart of water, heating it to a simmer. Noticing a bag of marshmallows on one of the shelves, she snatched those up and threw a handful of them into the pot to enrich the flavor and texture, as she lovingly stirred the ingredients. Meanwhile I scrounged up every coffee mug and cup we had in the house, grabbing my fake-antique Coca-Cola serving tray somewhere along the way.

cocoa2In an expression of genuine gratitude toward the firemen for their heroic efforts in the face of indeterminable odds and empyrean danger, Jilly very carefully set out eight cups of boiling cocoa, placing marshmallows in each full cup. It was as artistic as it was touching.

By the time she had all that together, the men had put the fire out and appeared to be in the wrap-up stages of their operations. As they were gathering up hoses just next to our driveway, Jilly, with great caution, very earnestly carried the tray of hot chocolate out to the profusely perspiring firefighters. Honestly, they looked at her like she was crazy or high, but I knew her well enough to know she was neither. She was uncommonly special.

And she was pretty. So the guys were more inclined to humor her and cut her a little slack—even if she was pretty weird. One of the braver among the firefighters took a sip of the concoction and fiercely spit it right out, asking what the hell was in that shit anyway. Jilly nonchalantly riffed through the list of ingredients, the orange soda in particular stuck out. Yeah, that’s probably what it was. Orange soda.

Rinnie-like

Rinnie-like

All the activity brought Rinnie out to see what the commotion was about. Rinnie lived under the neighbor’s disabled Plymouth station wagon at the house directly across the lane. He was a strange looking little dog—a longhaired German shepherd trapped in a Dachsund’s body. Because he clearly had received no attention other than to be fed periodically, and smelled of axel grease, and probably because he was keenly aware of his unfortunate circumstance in the scheme of all things, Rinnie was slightly anti-social.

He got overly excited in crowds and considered any living entity other than himself to be a crowd. I was the one to christen him Rinnie, after Rin Tin Tin (I don’t know what his real name was, or if he even had one), in hopes of elevating his desperately low self-esteem. It seemed he had internalized several critical issues from puppyhood regarding his stature in the world, issues which had manifest themselves in adulthood as a bad habit of acting out in a negative manner, barking and growling. Lashing out and such.

But he responded well enough to the name Rinnie. I let him come in the house occasionally and he always behaved himself like a little gentleman. He loved government-issue American cheese cubes and crusts from Fred’s home-baked bread. For the most part, he seemed to mean well, despite himself.

So there we were, Jilly and Rinnie and me, standing with the firemen who were holding coffee cups full of some gawdawful substance they wanted to dump on the ground, but were too polite to do right in front of the pretty little lady. But as the inevitable lull ensued, the fireman who had spit out his chocolate unceremoniously dropped his cup on the tray Jilly had cradled in her arms and hied the other fellas: time to head on back to the station.

Heading Back

Heading Back

Seeing that as their opportune sanction, the others respectfully bent over and emptied their mugs on the ground, as subtly as possible, returning their cups to the tray. One of the guys put his hand on Jilly’s shoulder and thanked her little too soulfully, in my opinion. But, eventually, off they went and peace was restored to the valley.

Only a few weeks after that, Jilly who didn’t drive, effortlessly convinced me to borrow Fred’s big Dodge truck so we could rescue her cousin, who was stranded in Lincoln City where she had been abandoned by Rainbow Bob—not the first time he had pulled a stunt of that nature. He was kind of a rat. I wrote a fictional (though true) account of that event and and it’s linked here. It was at that time into which my beloved dog Gypsy entered the picture, there to remain for the next fifteen years.

After the adventure to the coast to save her cousin, Jilly and I bonded and became much closer, spending nearly every day together until the end of June. Several afternoons a week, I would join her as she babysat for a favored instructor, Ram Dosa and his wife Bridget. Professor Dosa was of Indian origin. He had a dark complexion, with very blue features and a sparse black beard. A Hindu, he wore a turban, his forehead thumbed with a white ashpaste smudge.

Liv Ullmann

Liv Ullmann

Bridget was a beautiful blonde Swedish woman, tall and slender, with glacier blue eyes—a dead ringer for the actress Liv Ullmann. She was a teacher’s assistant in the Ed. Department at the college. They were wonderful people. In their mid-thirties. They had one child, a delightful young boy, age four, named Christian. Christian was the most beautiful little boy who ever lived.

His skin was the color of coffee cream, hair honey brown, with a radiant array of golden streaks. His eyes were unbearably limpid blue, wonder wide lagoons that peered out with an air of naïve wisdom that was oftentimes quite unnerving.

With both of his parents at work most days, a sitter was required for little Christian. Jilly had met Bridget in an Ed. class somewhere along the line and they hit it off instantly—undoubtedly because they were both very much alike in their bearing and demeanor. Jilly could have passed for Bridget’s younger sister.

Jilly was selected among only a few other students to be allowed to stay with Christian for five hours or more, while his parents were gone for the day. I knew Ram Dosa well from an Anthropolgy course I was taking from him that year. He was a wise, deeply spiritual man with incredible insights into mankind and the cultures of men around the world.

clouds1Eventually, once his parents had become comfortable with my presence in their son’s midst, I was permitted to babysit Christian a few times. Typically we didn’t do much, staying around the family house, reading books, watching Sesame Street. Or we would sit in his play area in the back yard and confer on matters. When outside, our sessions were more creative. We would identify shapes in clouds, or try to hear what that butterfly over there said.

There were protracted discussions on a host of topics. I regaled the lad with various tales of my feats as a youngster. Seeking to impress him I related to Christian my matchless childhood ability to identify any of our neighbors’ cars simply by hearing the sound of one passing in front of our house. He told me that Jerry’s car made a sound. I gathered that Jerry was a neighbor, but I was uncertain as to whether he was a child or an adult. I inquired further. He replied definitively: “Bunker-tia quink. That’s the sound Jerry’s car makes.”

I could hear that car’s suspension in my mind’s ear. Worn shocks and struts, no doubt. When I was a kid, it never occurred to me to phoneticize the sounds I heard. I just identified our neighbor’s individual cars and found a certain reassurance in those reverberations. On one of the other occasions I stayed with him, I heard the very sound Christian had described. Shushing him, I raised a finger in the air, whispering conspiratorily: Jerry’s car! His eye’s widened and he put his hands up in glee. Yeah, Jerry’s car!

The afternoon before the last day of classes, Jilly appeared at our door, sobbing uncontrollably. Leading her into the living room, I sat her down on one of the couches; wrapping my arms around her in an unsuccessful attempt at consolation. Trying to draw from her the cause of her distress, I kept massaging her shoulder and asking her what had happened.

Brokenhearted, she groaned emphatically. “He’s dead. He died. He died this morning. There was an accident.” Then she burst into tears again. That didn’t sound good at all. I thought maybe Buzz had gotten in a wreck. He drove back and forth between Corvallis and Salem a lot. Shit.

I tried my best to comfort her, but she was moving toward a state of catalepsy. Making every attempt to maintain my own composure in an unaccustomed position of frazzled counsel, I basically had not the slightest idea what to do. But little by little Jilly relaxed. I asked her as gently as possible, who died? She began to sob again, bawling “Ram Dosa. He was in a crash. In Woodburn. He saved Christian’s life.”

strawberriesRam Dosa had taken his son with him over to Woodburn that morning to pick a few crates of fresh strawberries, hoping to surprise Bridget, who loved the fruit with abiding ardor. On their way home, around noon, as they were headed south from Woodburn on Highway 99, an oncoming car suddenly lost control and headed straight for them. Christian’s father’s final deed was to thrust himself in front of his son, who sat in the passenger’s seat beside him—sparing the boy’s life as he sacrificed his own.

 

 

end

 

 

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The Bible XII

Tower of Babel
Was meant to reach to heaven.
But plans got confused.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prologue to Tales From the L-Shaped House on the S-Curve

It’s already been five years since Gary called to tell me his brother had died. Doug had just graduated from Portland State University with a degree in Accounting only a few weeks earlier. He had even lined up a job! Doug going to school was nothing unusual. He was more or less a professional student. Getting a full-time job was not a goal I ever knew him to have in mind, nor to pursue at all unless financially challenged to the point of desperation.

He had almost twelve hundred hours of college credits to his name in over thirty subjects, with many degrees, I don’t think anybody knew how many, certainly not Doug. But, by the time one of those degrees was finally acquired, he’d instantly lose interest in the subject as a possible vocation—and just head on back to school. He had degrees in pretty much every field other than Medicine, and that was only because he wasn’t interested in Medicine. He didn’t care for bodily functions. So, it wasn’t that he lacked ambition. It’s just that nothing ever stuck.

AlCan Highway

AlCan Highway

I’d recently been back in touch with him after about five or six years. It was just sort of that way with us. In the thirty-five years we knew each other, he was always heading off on some sort of expedition. Doug and Linda took that old, gray pick-up truck with the little cabin built in the bed all the way up the AlCan Highway to Juneau and back. Several times. As a couple, the two of them were socially ADD. A mutual wanderlust was the chief feature in their relationship.

I met Doug and Tom in college at OCE in Monmouth, in the spring of my sophomore year. Fred brought them in. My high school buddy Jeff Penny and I had been living in the spacious 50’s-style ranch house since the fall. When we moved in, a couple of Viet Nam vet/students were living there, whom, in retrospect, most definitely had acute Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. You walked very lightly around them. They both wore army field jackets and appeared to still be at war. One was William. The other was Robert, I think, I’m not sure I ever actually spoke to him. It was a big house.

When Robert left in winter term, we got Steve Varney in to take his room. Varney was a regular guy, more on Jeff’s wavelength than mine, but cool. As he was a member of the school tennis team, I do not recall him dressed in anything but tennis whites. He dedicated himself to living the gym rat lifestyle to its greatest potential. Because of this, he was one of my clients.

I had a little business on the side writing papers for jocks. It was lucrative and fairly easy—as neither my clients nor their teachers had particularly high expectations for these guys, given their performances in class. For my part, I would briefly interview my clients in order to get some idea of how their minds worked, if at all, and to see if they knew anything about the topic at hand, which was rarely the case. Steve was one of my four regular accounts.

Hallowed Butler Hall

Hallowed Butler Hall

Dave Dingle and Jimmy Price were dorm roommates of mine from freshman year at Butler Hall, football players, good athletes, but scholastically challenged. They were difficult to write for, because their language skill levels were so elementary and typically they knew nothing about their class subjects, because they rarely attended. I also wrote papers for Masa Misake, but he was problematic in a different way, as English was his second language.

He was Japanese, from Gresham. His family owned a bean and berry farm. A wrestler, he wasn’t very tall, but amazingly compact. Solid. Dense. We took a swimming class together and it was quickly discovered that he was unable to float. He’d try to swim the regular Australian crawl, madly flailing, stroking and kicking, yet still slowly sink to the bottom of the pool.

Masa was a card shark and I was a naïve tool. Therefore he won every poker hand we ever played and I owed him a lot of money. So I ended up writing all his papers for free. After first term in Butler, he and I moved to an apartment off-campus for winter term of my freshman year. In the spring, Jeff escaped the dorm regimen as well, and the three of us moved into a tiny apartment in a converted old house just a couple blocks away from the campus. It was just two rooms, a “kitchen/living room,” area and a bedroom, in which we had wedged three beds, with only enough room to navigate between them and three small sets of drawers against the back wall.

Masa was the individual responsible for getting Jeff and I stoned for the first time. For my part, I had never smoked or drunk anything in my life. In high school I was a three-sport jock with bloodstream as clean as a silver thaw. Jeff had been our high school band drum major and was far more likely to mess around with mind-altering substances than I. He had fondness for blackberry brandy and Crooks cigars.

Red Moroccan Hash

Moroccan Red Hash

One day we dispatched Masa on a mission to procure for us some substance by which we might attain this “stoned” state he had been relentlessly proselytizing. Not exactly an expert on the subject himself, despite his bluster to the contrary, he bought two grams of Moroccan red hash with the understanding such a quantity would be more than enough for the three of us to get royally wasted.

So, that night we made a pipe out of foil and a toilet paper roll and smoked both grams consecutively. I determined that I didn’t really notice any effects whatsoever and decided to hit the hay. While lying in bed I felt my arms and legs detach from my body, spin around the room and reattach. But otherwise nothing out of the ordinary to report and I fell asleep.

The following fall term, sophomore year, Masa decided to move in with his girlfriend. Jeff and I moved in with William and Robert in that expansive ranch house on the east edge of town by the boundary between Monmouth and Independence city limits. Jeff knew Steve Varney from their mutual interest in pursuing their preferences for fine armcandy. And somewhere along the line Masa had introduced him to me as another potential patron in my burgeoning enterprise as a pedagogic ghostwriter. So, when Robert shipped out that winter, bringing in Varney was not an issue at all.

B+Impoverished, it was imperative that my little writing venture thrived and it did just that through the winter. I was averaging five or six clients per week. I charged twenty-five dollars for up to a 500-word essay and guaranteed a C grade or better, or a full refund. For most of the guys (oddly, never any women) that was easy money for me, because, as I said, expectations were low all around. I never had to pay a refund.

I developed styles for each of my regulars. Dave was sort of the dumb guy who always missed a major point or two, but got the basics. Jimmy liked to dig in, but he had a short attention span. Varney was easy, because he was just a laid back guy. I always pretended to be sleepy when I wrote his compositions, sort of distracted. But Masa was the one to require a lot of work—until I developed a “voice” for him.

In fact, I mastered his actual voice. I learned to write as he spoke. Masa expressed himself in short, curt phrases, often very sarcastic, even mean at times, frequently missing articles or fouling up prepositions. Spare with words, he sometimes used them incorrectly, or in an odd, inadvertent way. Few adjectives, or other modifiers. He often got his tenses fouled up and omitted pronouns. He articulated ideas very directly, as if his world was continuously under complete control. Though perhaps not necessarily accurate with an assertion, he was never less than entirely persuasive in saying so.bacon

For one English Lit 101 class I had him naively argue that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays. It was that other man. That Bacon guy. He write Hamlet. People say friends egg him on. He figure why not, career already toasted. There was other stupid stuff like that, but his professor gave him an A on that one for the attempt at levity, I guess—considering it came from someone not so familiar with the English language. That’s the only way that one ever would have flown. I also had a good working knowledge of the instructor audiences for whom I was writing. Consequently, my pieces were always tailored with a high degree of specificity.toast

The crowning achievement within my writing concern came at the end of winter term. I wrote five papers for the same World Literature 101 class. That was less complicated than it may sound, as, armed with my extensive palette of low styles and muffled voices, I was able to cobble together a quintet of viewpoints—that mixed and matched and argued with one another in fresh, exciting new ways, which I fairly well knew our target academic recipient had surely yet to witness within the field of multiple counterfeit submissions in a single course. The ruse worked.

As lucrative as it was, I had to abandon that line of work when an unfortunate side effect became apparent. My own grades had begun to suffer. Because my high school cumulative GPA had been an astoundingly abysmal 1.7, I was only able to get into college at all because I had the third highest SAT score in my senior class. Yes, it’s true. I may have lacked focus in high school. I entered college on academic probation.

It became a point of pride for me to prove to myself, or whoever, that I could be a good student. My freshman year I took over twenty hours per term, all 200 level courses or higher. At the end of my first year in college I had a cumulative 3.7 GPA.

And my sophomore year had been just as successful until that winter term, when things began to slide a bit. I only had a 3.2 GPA for twenty-two hours taken. I got a B in Geology. And my Drama class with Professor Hanson had not gone well. He seemed not to see things my way. I had opinions. I was nearly twenty years old, after all. And I’d written a couple plays in high school. No big deal.

Other changes befell the household near the end of that winter term. William elected to bivouac elsewhere and decamped in early March. Thus we were again thrust into the unwelcomed position of seeking a new lodger. But, fortuitously, that dilemma was more easily solved than we could have foreseen.

Because his efforts in college primarily consisted of avoiding all things scholastic (as well as the military draft) if at all possible, Varney took a lot of fluff classes that didn’t require much work, but which, coincidentally, also almost always had a very high female-to-male ratio. Most of them were art classes. It was in one of those art classes that Jeff first met Varney. And it was in another of those art classes in which Varney met Fred. However, against all odds, Fred happened to be a real artist. He wasn’t just taking art classes to lay low and score with the chicks, although he wasn’t necessarily opposed to that.

In casually befriending the impish fellow, it came to Varney’s attention that Fred was himself in the midst of seeking new quarters. Having recently vacated intolerable conditions, he was sleeping on a friend’s couch—his welcome veering dangerously close to running out altogether. Never one to miss an opportunity, Varney invited Fred over to check out our luxury lifestyle at the edge of town.

overallsFred Harmon was a well-known anomaly around Monmouth. Built like a buffalo, he was short, with a stubby, stout-set frame. Bedecked in his uniform of a dirty t-shirt, clay-smeared Oshkosh bib overalls, wire-rimmed glasses, long stringy, copper brown hair, and bushy beard, the role of town eccentric suited him almost too well, too comfortably. His whereabouts were always known. His incessant, booming, demented chortle could be heard for blocks in all directions. A character of mottled reputation to be sure.

Seeking in vain some impossible reconciliation with a militantly military father retired to the Oregon coast, Fred migrated west from Kennebunkport, Maine via an extended detour to Silver Spring, Maryland. He had been there trying to rekindle the fire of Marie, a former flame. He was not entirely unsuccessful in that endeavor. But the siren call of attempting to mend familial rifts beckoned him westward. Ultimately to no avail.

Stranded in Cannon Beach with no further destination in mind, Fred was lured to Monmouth, Oregon because there happened to be a college there. And he had once lived near Monmouth, Maine. Kismet. While courting Marie, he had been attending school at the University of Maryland in College Park, so his credits were easily transferred.

Campbell Hall Remodel, Oct. 12, 1962

Campbell Hall Remodel, Oct. 12, 1962

In no time Fred became the intolerably voluble resident wheelmaster in the pottery department in the basement of Campbell Hall—even though he had no prior experience in the craft. Soon his fame spilled out of the art department and washed across the campus. Rumors spread of an irrepressibly ebullient, raving elfin creature covered in mud, running around town getting into deep philosophical dialogues with students and instructors alike about Kierkegaard, Rosenweig, Buber; arguments regarding Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg, or raging debates concerning raku pottery and the efficacy of low fire glaze components.

Raku

Raku

It did not take him long to begin sounding like an expert, and, renowned for sometimes spending twenty hours a day down there among the mixers and mills and tubs of pugged clay, he soon became one. So Fred came with a certain cache that preceded him in some quarters—always persuasively credible. With his heavy Northeastern accent and the overtly demonstrative manner by which he expressed himself, it was often impossible to overcome Fred’s insistent authority. He was nearly larger than life.

Varney brought him out to the house to inspect the expansive estate. Satisfied and not a little desperate, Fred quickly arrived at terms with the three of us. By our fairly conservative reckoning he seemed a tad radical, but on the whole harmless. He moved in the next day, which was the Ides of March, 1970. He took William’s old room, the converted den that adjoined the spacious living room on the east side of the house.

Four years my senior, Fred quickly came to represent for me the elder sibling I never had. He freely dispensed his wisdom about the essence of life or pretty much anything that was on his mind, effusively gesticulating—always in buoyant motion. Fred at rest was a very rare state indeed. Our discussions about art and philosophy were monumental, rivaling those between the great minds of the ages (if they just so happened to be attending a small college in Monmouth, Oregon: Socrates meet Fred Nietzsche. Okay fellas, let’s rap).

Fred’s sly east coast savvy and unabashed freight train of erudition never failed to leave a lasting impression upon all who crossed his tracks. Even if he knew absolutely nothing about a subject, he could effortlessly convince you he was an expert—never as an act of deviousness, but more as a sincere expression of his formidable confidence in himself. If Fred didn’t know, there probably wasn’t an answer.

loafThe household was transformed by his arrival. In a matter of a week or so, what had previously seemed to be an army barracks became a site suitable for another Woodstock gathering. Fred coached Varney and me (Jeff did not wish to participate in any mutual food combines) through the process of signing up for the Government Food Surplus Program, where we could get two-pound blocks of American cheese, flour, evaporated milk, “luncheon loaf” and other basic supplies.

From these meager provisions Fred would consistently concoct delectable dishes, predominantly consisting of flour and cheese in an incredible variety of mixtures and combinations. He made his own noodles and we ate American cheese fettuccine. He baked bread. The house always reeked of the stuff. We had grilled cheese sandwiches on home-baked bread. Scrambled powdered eggs and toast. Powdered egg omelets with luncheon loaf and American cheese. French toast. We ate like kings for nothing—which was just as well. I was broke.

And it was Fred who introduced marijuana into the routine within our humble abode. As with everything else, he was an authority on the subject. He knew all the strains: your Acapulco Golds, your Panama Reds, your Michoacan, and Oaxacan, Columbian, Jamaican, Thai, Maui Wowie, Hindu Kush. As for me, I’d only had that one indifferent experience with a large quantity of hashish. I took his word for it.

cartoon3Summoning Jeff and me into his room one afternoon, soon after he had moved in, the odd little man revealed in hushed, conspiratorial tones the secret—of something very magical in his possession. With a dramatic flourish, he produced a baggy containing two fingers of some kind of grass that appeared to have a sort of rainbow-like brown and green color.  Thrusting it before us, he excitedly proclaimed, “Cartoon grass!”

yosemite2That sounded interesting to me. I liked cartoons. Fred produced a corncob pipe and a handful of wooden matches. Jamming a wad of weed into the bowl, he struck a matchstick and puffed heartily before handing the pipe to me. As directed, I inhaled deeply and held the sweet smoke into my lungs. After the first hit, I was pretty sure I didn’t feel much of anything. After the second, I didn’t know who I was, where I was, or what the hell I was doing standing next to Yosemite Sam and Pepé Le Pew.

pepe_le_pew-stonedPepé and I jumped and danced around like two young men stoned for the first time in their lives, while Yosemite Sam stood by puffing on his pipe and cackling maniacally at our theatrics. Pepé began to hop in the doorway between the dusky afternoon light in Sam’s room and the dark and cavernous living room, chanting “It’s day, it’s night. It’s night, it’s day.” Curious to understand Pepé’s experience, I did the same. And we did that for god knows how long. It seemed like years. Many, many days and nights. It could have been thirty seconds. Who’s to say?

After a while, I wandered off to my room where I wrote copious quantities of unintelligible poetry—the written equivalent of speaking in tongues. Writing in tongues. Is that a thing? All these years later, I can still remember two short phrases I wrote. One was “Proverdale highway,” apparently not any particular road to somewhere. The other was “chopus klotmos,” which certainly bore a darker, Lovecraftian aspect. I had no idea where that came from, nor what it could possibly mean.

As a result, however, I found it imperative that I retrace my steps as soon as possible—the following afternoon, in fact—in order to attempt a comprehensive inquiry into the whole matter. So once again I entered the land of incoherent cartoons, finding no answers, only more questions still. But, on the up side, I was inspired to retreat to my room to write a bunch of cool songs in a brand new style, which seemed to be reason enough to continue with further investigation the day after that. And the day after that. Etc.

Sudan-Africa-Khartoum

Khartoum: Idealized

Being a young man of estimable erudition, Fred perceived that I had become a seeker of a higher plane and sought to provide me with the necessary guidance to move forward in my quest. He also provided me with pot, as I hadn’t the slightest idea how to get a hold of the stuff. But I was committed to deeper exploration of cartoon grass. That was up until Fred informed me that it was Khartoum grass. From Khartoum. In Africa. Over by Egypt. Khartoum. Oh.

Conversely, Jeff had found the entire night/day encounter somewhat discorporative. I think it frightened him to lose control of his world. He chose not to actively participate in any further experiments in the field, though when offered a pipe or a joint he never failed to take a few grandiose puffs, expelling most of the smoke before it ever reached his lungs, prior to rambling back into that other world I had left behind. Our paths diverged from there.

Under Fred’s tutelage, I began to change, while Jeff, not so much or perhaps in a more predictable way that I couldn’t understand. It’s true that for his part, my high school friend had become preoccupied with sports cars and all related accessories. Increasingly, his car obsession served as preamble to his compulsion for females. In that regard, Jeff had indeed changed a great deal.

In high school, he was a nerd like me. Maybe even a bigger one. But, upon entering college, Jeff seemed to physically metamorphose into another person. He let his black hair grow out from a flat-top into modest, Valiantesque nobility. He grew a beard, which he kept fastidiously trimmed. That beard gave his face unanticipated proportion. His prominent nose was offered balance and perspective. He was suddenly handsome. He hardly knew what to do with himself, though he figured it out pretty quickly.

sprite3And all things became a validation of Jeff’s manhood. His room, his clothes, his car: everything became ritualized. Every morning at precisely 8:30, dressed in his jaunty brown tweed coat and matching driving cap, dashing scarf, Foster Grant sunglasses, and expensive goatskin driving gloves, he would fire up his red Austin-Healey Sprite, pumping the gas pedal methodically, revving the engine into eruptive orgasmic bursts.

Sears Exec

Sears Exec

Finally, motor reaching suitable lubricity and properly warmed to precise running temperature, he would race from the driveway in front of the house, scattering gravel like seed into the lawn. The guy was twenty years old fer Christ’s sake! He acted like a forty-five year old divorced Sears executive from Syracuse.

All day, every day, an endless parade of females passed through the door to his bedroom. Tall ones, short ones. Blondes, brunettes, gingers. Cute ones, ugly ones. Smart, stupid. Pudgy, slender. Jeff seemed to have no precise parameters when it came to women. They were all mere conquests for him. They served no other purpose. He had a few girlfriends along the way. But none of them ever distinguished themselves from the other four or five girls tramping into his room every day—notches on some phallic gun in his mind. Jeff became a vain, effete, lothario whom I began to dislike very much.

As for Varney, he wasn’t around that much. He’d settled in with a girlfriend named Dorothy—a short woman with a compassionate demeanor that led one to conclude she would likely become a nurse. A very pleasant person. Dorothy shared an apartment with another coed, but she had her own room, and her roommate was very quiet and reclusive, which apparently Varney found more conducive to his lifestyle of kicking back than our place where there were young women coming and going at all times of the day, clouds of pot smoke and aromatic plumes of fresh-baked bread vapor wafting through the premises, some album or another (or more than one) blasting from one of the five music sources, emanating from different parts of the house simultaneously in cacophony. There was also the factor that since I had stopped writing his papers for him, he was forced to actually study from time to time, although I’m pretty sure Dorothy did most of his written assignments for him.

Fred

Fred: Age-Progressed

Meanwhile, Fred had his own coterie of pulchritudinous young women dropping in, enamored of his dazzling creative vision, forthright self-assurance and gnome-like physical appeal. That combination worked surprisingly well for Fred, although it must be said that he did not actively pursue exacting goals and rewards on Jeff’s scale. Instead, he seemed to genuinely like the young women that came by and to enjoy sharing his enthusiasm for almost any available subject. He also had an equal number of cool male friends—which Jeff did not.

I felt shy and somewhat awkward around most women at school, and had enough problems trying to forget the one woman in my life, back home in Milwaukie. I mostly stayed in my room, writing and recording songs, writing poetry or otherwise keeping to myself. Though there were only three guys actively living at that house, there always seemed to be a crowd around.

The spring unfolding in the Willamette Valley that year was magical. It was sunny and warm nearly everyday. Idyllic. The rolling hills of the countryside are a thousand shades of green at that time of year and the incessant sunshine gave the world a verdant incandescence that was thoroughly intoxicating, especially for a twenty-year-old college student eager to do practically anything besides school work.

Think of this in olive green

Think of this in olive green

It wasn’t a month after he’d moved in, early April, I had just been out to the mailbox to see if the check from my Mom had arrived. As I dejectedly walked back up the long drive way Fred rolled up to the hacienda in his gigantic, military olive-green Dodge Town Wagon panel truck. Out from the passenger side dropped a pretty young woman, with beautiful blue eyes who was dressed similarly to Fred. Well, she was wearing bib overalls. That was it. No shirt. Barefoot. Her hair was wet, as if she had just gotten out of the shower.

She had cradled in her arms a tiny white, fuzzy little dog. It was like a badly distorted albino Chihuahua nightmare, possibly the ugliest little dog I had ever seen. It shivered in fear of god only knows what, everything I suppose. It wasn’t the temperature: it was eighty degrees outside.  In his blunt, abrupt fashion, Fred introduced us.

“Jilly, this is Steve. Steve this is Jilly.” Gesturing with his hand toward the miserable little dog, he beamed proudly. “And this…is Chopus.” In an instant, I sprinted away from the two of them and stayed in my room until they left.

A reasonable facsimile of Chopus

A reasonable facsimile of Chopus

It turns out Fred was quite taken with my invented etymology and told his pottery class chum, Jilly Bing, of the crazy guy he was living with who smoked a bit of weed and started creating his own language. For whatever reason, she was attracted to the syllables Chopus, and when her roommate Karen came home from class with the ugly little dog she had seen dawdling forlornly around the campus for the past few days, Julie immediately designated Chopus to be the tiny stranger’s name—thus securing its destiny as the most misbegotten creature on the face of the planet. And Chopus was his name-o.

arcane weirdness

Arcane Weirdness

But in our brief encounter I did find Jilly’s arcane weirdness quite charming—I have always found arcane weirdness appealing, because of my own I would suppose. So a couple days later I tracked down her student mailbox number, 799, and left her a note apologizing for my arcane weirdness. Apology accepted, we reconvened at some point shortly thereafter, beginning an adventure that lasted the rest of the spring. We saw each other nearly every day.

She had graduated from high school in Salem the same year as I, after spending most of her life shuttling back and forth between her mother in Ventura and her father in Salem. Graduation just happened to fall during the year she was living with her dad.

There was a boyfriend, from high school, Buzz, who was going to college in Corvallis. Jilly shared with me her incredible ambivalence over their relationship. They did not see each other very often. She had another boyfriend Craig, who was attending Cal at Berkeley, but they hadn’t seen each other in almost two years. Still, she spoke of him often, as if they still had some sort of active relationship.

She probably used these other guys as a protective shield to prevent others from coming too near. I know that approach worked reasonably well on me. I was too naïve not to be completely threatened by these unseen names who weighed so heavily upon her psyche. But, because they weren’t around, I wasn’t so intimidated as to discontinue our innocently happy vernal gambol.

mothersAll the peace and love in the air began to rankle Jeff, who had no use whatsoever for the hippie chicks Fred was attracting. Their presence impeded his presentation, and made difficult the manufacture of a proper milieu for seduction—especially with the Mothers of Invention blaring from a stereo and a bunch of people getting high in the kitchen.

But there were other matters for concern. For one thing, Fred was not at all reluctant to confront some of Jeff’s more obvious Freudian issues. Nor did he feel any compunction about “borrowing” some of Jeff’s food or booze, if the situation necessitated such action. When confronted, he never failed to generously offer fresh bread in return.

So, April wasn’t nearly half over when Jeff came forward to inform Fred and me—and Varney (by proxy, I’m sure)­—that he would be abandoning our living situation for better accommodations. Um, tomorrow! Given such short notice, there was only one thing to do: send Fred out to find another roommate.

Jeff was still packing stuff away in his room, the following afternoon, when Fred wheeled into the driveway, transporting with him two scraggly passengers. Both of them had beards and long hair, and vaguely resembled Fred and me, in the non-conformist style of the day. I figured they were friends of Fred’s and paid no attention. But once the three of them were through the front door, he motioned for them to follow him and they moved directly down the hall toward Jeff’s room.

star trek 3They stood in the entry talking, as if Jeff weren’t there boxing up items right in front of them. After a couple of minutes the trio came out to the living room where I was watching the afternoon broadcast of Star Trek on Channel 12. They sat down on a couch and a nearby chair, and Fred introduced us. Jamming a thumb in their direction he said, “Steve, this is Tom and Doug. They’re going to be moving in as soon as Jeff gets his shit out of here.”

And in that moment the L-Shaped House on the S-Curve was born.

 

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The Bible XI

Jonah got swallowed
By a gigantic sturgeon,
Which didn’t sit well.

In League With Gypsies

Most people find this hard to believe, but I have been a musician most of my life. It’s true, my skill level, such as it is, wouldn’t immediately indicate such a thing. But, in truth, I was a musician long before I ever learned how to play an instrument. I suppose that observation still remains mostly true today.

piano4When I was young, I had a fascination for pianos. Whenever my family would visit a household that had one, I would immediately rush to it and not leave for the entire stay. Once seated at the keyboard, I would reverently press the notes, absorbing all the beautiful frequencies involved in the sounding of that single tone. Then I would press two-notes together. A chord. And I would positively swoon at the interplay of frequencies. I found it so overwhelming I would often begin crying at the sound.

I was already composing music on the piano Grandma Polly gave us preceding their arrival, but it was probably the Beatles that inspired me to learn guitar. My sister had been taking lessons, as she had shown a distinct aptitude for the piano, before ours even arrived from our grandmother. But my sister was a classical music nut. She didn’t really like her piano teacher—who wanted to teach her to play chords and musical accompaniment to popular music in the jazz tradition.

So she quit taking her lessons after a few months. But I used her practice books to teach myself the basics of music theory: mostly centered around the construction of chords. I figured it out. I got it. When some family friends gave us a pretty decent homemade guitar, I started teaching myself chords by hunting down the individual notes on each string. This made for some chord fingerings never before seen on the planet. But I still use some of them when I play today.

bandEventually I learned somewhat how to play guitar in the manner of the day. By junior year in high school some friends and I formed a band—the Forgotten Few. We rehearsed more than we actually performed. I remember we played a few parties. And we tore up a smorgasboard at Wichita Grade School. The kids went crazy. Beyond that, we were generally forgotten by the few who heard us.

In college I fell in with Marv Ross and Lew Jones. We were three young singer songwriters, and I think we may have fancied ourselves as the next Crosby, Stills and Nash, except we all three wanted to be Neil Young. But beyond that, we were three pretty decent, young songwriters and we deserved to be heard. We played one memorable gig at the college in Mount Angel (which closed long ago).

Mount Angel is out in the foothills of the Cascades east of Salem. We borrowed Tom’s van to make the trip out there from Monmouth, where we were going to school. As fortification, we sat huddled in the back of the van and drank a substantial quantity of wine—and none among the three of us were really much in the way of drinkers. But, as things turned out, it was just as well.

The cheery Mt. Angel College Student Union

The cheery Mt. Angel College Student Union

We were a little keyed up for that performance—our first, ever. It was in the cafeteria or the Student Center, some dimly lit room of moderate size with claustrophobic ceilings and ominous curtains drawn tight as if to portend no flight. There was an audience of respectable size, maybe thirty or forty students, all sitting very quietly in folding chairs. We set up our gear in front of them as they stared at us without the slightest hint of expectation. Slightly drunk, we hurried to the back of the room where there was a table with cookies on plates and an enormous urn of coffee.

Grabbing cups of coffee, we stood at the back of the room for quite some time, apprehensively eyeing one another. The vibe in there was cheerlessly dreary. It hadn’t occurred to any of us to consider the fact that though Mount Angel College was a Fine Arts school, it was owned and operated by the Catholic Church, so it wasn’t exactly party central. Even still, we could not possibly have foreseen the doleful, woeful bunch we encountered there.

We were to play two forty-five minute sets. It was painfully obvious from the very start that dancing of any sort was of course out of the question. But it soon became clear that there would be no clapping of hands, nor tapping of feet, no nodding to the groove, no knowing glances of understanding, no smiles of appreciation. Nothing.

600-01195616They simply sat there and stared at us. When we would finish playing a song, they would politely place their hands together, very softly, as if they were wearing kid gloves. If we played a song they knew, they clapped modestly louder. If we tried an original number on them (about two-thirds of our material), their response was kitten paws quiet. We’d play some heartfelt rockin’ little number, wrapping it up with a ringing G chord. Sepulchral pall.

In retrospect, I’m reminded of something bass player Paul Kerouac once remarked at a Walkie Talkie gig ten years later: “Hey, I didn’t know dead people smoked!” Except these kids weren’t smoking. I’m not sure what they were doing, but whatever it was, it was not being entertained by us. I don’t remember packing up after we finally finished, or leaving the facility, only that we got the hell out of Mount Angel as fast as Tom’s van could haul us.

Six or seven years later, while I was still living in Dallas, Oregon, I formed a band with Roger, Roy and a couple of the Mikes from the fir cone dryer. We called ourselves Last Standing Tree. We rehearsed at Mike’s house, a squat, brick-red cottage that lay on some wooded acreage in the rolling green hills of the coast range, just outside of town off Ellendale Road.

We performed all over the mid-Willamette Valley, from Gates to Philomath, from Yamhill to Stayton, from McMinnville to Corvallis. We played every dive bar in the region that had music of any kind. Our specialty was a broad selection of Grateful Dead material, as well as a hearty assortment of country rock songs by artists such as the Eagles, Allman Brothers, Jackson Brown, Graham Parsons and JJ Cale. We also threw in an array of original songs, just to keep the audience at bay.

While we had a small coterie of friends and family who would generally attend our gigs close to home—like when we played the Blue Garden or the Shortstop Inn in Dallas, the Falls City Tavern, or the Cooler in Independence—most of the more distant events were staged before complete and not always completely satisfied strangers (a guy once offered us fifty bucks to quit playing, so he could shoot pool in peace). Still, we did have a fan base.

Gypsy Jokers

Gypsy Jokers

From playing various parties and other functions throughout greater Polk County, we acquired a bit of a reputation with the Gypsy Jokers motorcycle gang. The Jokers have been around since the ‘50s and are pretty much considered right up there with the Hell’s Angels as far as badassed motorcycle gangs go. The two gangs had turf wars back in the ‘60s down in the Bay area, which resulted in the Jokers moving up to Oregon (I guess we know who won). Numerous members lived out in the hills surrounding Dallas. They were spread all over the Willamette Valley.

One or two Jokers at a gig was usually fine. Everybody got along and the good times rolled. But more than about five or so and the mood would fill with menace and the air would pretty much leak out of any sort of party balloon we in the band were attempting to musically inflate. When a troop of those guys showed up, we generally took a break. But, for whatever reason (probably the Dead and other “outlaw” songs we played), the guys typically took a shine to us.

I don’t remember exactly what year it was, but it was fall, because it was beginning to grow chilly at night, threatening frost. One of the Mike’s, I’m not sure which one, scored us a gig playing at a Gypsy Jokers party out on the road to Monmouth. It was held outdoors in a big, wide-open field, next to an orchard.

Tank

Tank

Early one breezy afternoon, we drove a borrowed flat-bed truck down a long gravel driveway that divided two rows of apple trees and eventually led to an old, dilapidated yellow, two-story house. A guy named Tank greeted us. He could have been named “Truck” and no one would have argued. He had a leather red face, bushy brown beard and long, greasy hair combed back in deep furrows. He was in uniform: motorcycle boots, dirt-slicked jeans, t-shirt and grimy black leather vest, obligatory sleeveless Levi jacket sporting the familiar gang emblem of a skull wearing dark glasses on the back.

Tank told us to park in front of the house where we would use the truck bed for a stage. He hauled a couple of power cords out to us and we began setting up. A couple of bikers and their chicks ambled by from time to time and we would stop what we were doing to chat with them. One of the guys, kind of a hippie-looking dude in Jokers regalia, very neat and clean, with wire-rimmed glasses, a beaded headband and long straight blond hair, happened to mention he had a degree in engineering from MIT. One never knew with those guys. They were rebels.

We went on as scheduled at around three. It was to be five sets of rock and roll entertainment. We were to play until dark, around seven or eight or clock for a fee of five hundred dollars! We began playing to a modestly responsive crowd—pretty laid-back. They lay in tribal clumps out in the field in front of us, drinking and smoking weed, grooving on the Dead songs especially.

bikers1Parked motorcycles encircled a large, faded pink outbuilding, about fifty yards to our left on the east side of the property. An enormous amount of smoke steadily streamed from the open shed windows and periodically loud shouts and booming laughter would erupt. Bikers and their chicks randomly stumbled in and out of the building, eventually wandering toward the house behind us or to a familial cluster in the listening audience.

As the day digressed into evening, our spectators began gradually to disappear from our view. There were a few campfires out in the field and one over near the outbuilding. We could see shadows maneuvering in the twilight, but responses to the conclusions of our songs dwindled to occasional faint biker chick hoots and monosyllabic biker roars.

Eight o’clock rolled around and we finished our final set. Thank you very much, Gypsy Jokers and goodnight now y’all. However the Jokers weren’t quite ready for us to call it a night just yet, so someone somewhere sent forth an emissary to urge us to soldier on and continue to play into the night. A veiled sense of menace hung over the request. He scrounged up a couple of clamp on work lights, thus we were able to see what we were doing. So we played our first set over again and tried to leave. Another agent arrived imploring us to continue playing for the betterment of all mankind. So we played our second set over again.

As might have been expected, we began our second pass through our fifth set sometime after midnight. It was downright cold, our frosty breath fogged the night around us. It appeared to us that no one was even out there, we could discern no movement or sound. But every time we tried to quit a voice would gruffly bellow out from the darkness: “Keep playing!” Twice, shots were fired.

It was after one-thirty when we concluded our fifth set for the second time. We knew we had to come up with a plan or we might never be able to escape from that place. It was entirely possible that the Gypsy Jokers were intent on kidnapping our band and making us their music slaves— doomed to play “Me and My Uncle” five times a night into eternity. Out of desperation we arrived at a strategy.

making a breakWe launched into our “encore,” “I Know You Rider” for the second time. Our scheme was to slowly pack up our gear as we played, each of us taking extended solos—finishing with the drums. As each member would finish his solo, he would put away his guitar, batten down his amp and hide in the cab of the flatbed.

While Roger was executing a drum solo of extreme anxiety, a couple of the braver among us stayed behind on the flatbed to furtively pack up and fastly secure his drums and cymbals while he played. Finally, he was just down to his snare drum and stand. As Mike grabbed the drum stand and throne, Roger kept beating furiously on the snare as if his life depended on it.

Once everything was packed up, Roger jumped into the crowded cab, snare drum clutched tightly under his arm. Roy fired up the truck, swerved into reverse, turned, and hit the gas, spraying gravel as the wheels spun. We sped out of there as fast as we could go, the sounds of gunshots ringing through the apple trees. We never got paid for that gig.

                                                                        II

Another six or seven years later, Walkie Talkie, the band I had originally formed with second wife Hilda, had reached the end of its tenure as staunch purveyors of original music to crowds of tens. Acting on Hilda’s consistently self-serving counsel, we embarked upon a new, wondrous career as a lounge band—the object being to forego all dreams of finding success in the music industry in order to make a living in it.

One thing for any aspiring rock musician to remember is: “if music is your job, you are not playing.” Many rock musicians attempt to avoid this reality. That’s why they booze it up and take drugs and do other self-destructive things.

Back then being in a Top Forty “lounge band” was probably the lowest rung on the rock and roll ladder. The human jukebox. There was no musical creativity in a lounge band. The creativity came in stagecraft—lighting and dress: the package. The presentation. That’s where the best stood out from the rest. Sounding exactly like the band they covered was the next requisite. If you were going to be doing “Billy Jean,” you damn well better sound like Michael Jackson. Whoo!

Four sets a night, six nights a week. The good ones played the Red Lion circuit. Red Lion’s paid top dollar—as much as a thousand dollars a night, or more. I can’t remember who booked the Red Lions. It was a woman and she had bleach blond hair. At that time the circuit consisted of six or seven locations between Vancouver and Salem. So a band could play a week or two at one location and not return for another couple months.

We certainly weren’t one of those bands. The industry was hierarchical and tiered to conform to band ability and the needs of the dive that was requiring music on a nightly basis. Andy Gilbert and his minions at Pacific Talent governed the best rooms, booking more than half of all the music clubs in town. Pacific Talent is still around. They still book the best bands to events and fairs and the like.

Carmen

Carmen

We weren’t one of their bands either. We hooked up with the Tom Stinnette Agency. I don’t remember ever meeting old Tom. A young woman named Carmen was our liaison. She was very nice—a vivacious redhead who seemed to strike up some sort of bond with Hilda. Carmen did a good job of keeping us moderately busy, though most of the gigs paid only a fraction of what the others were receiving with the better agencies.

But we were kind of a tough band to book. We really only wanted to play Top Forty music we could tolerate, like Scandal’s “Goodbye To You,” the Cars’ “Shake It Up,” “Burning Down the House,” and “Safety Dance,” but circumstances compelled us to learn “Beat It,” “Every Breath You Take,” and “Flashdance.” I, for one was humiliated. But dollars had to be made.

Holiday Inn at Wilsonville?

Holiday Inn at Wilsonville?

One of the many, many places Carmen booked us was into the Holiday Inn in Wilsonville. That particular Holiday Inn still looks as if it were built during the Russian Constructivist era. It’s an austere building that sits off the I-5 Freeway out in the middle of nowhere—near Wilsonville, if that’s actually a real place. We played there on several occasions. In fact they had a room for the band before the gigs and during breaks. That was a touch of class to which we were unaccustomed.

One Saturday night as we arrived to play, Len the head bartender had a very worried look on his face. It seemed that a tribe of gypsies had booked the entire hotel for some sort of a convention and they were running rampant around the grounds, causing all kinds of mayhem, stealing sheets and towels, and anything that wasn’t bolted down. Actually two TVs were missing, even though they had been bolted down. The hotel manager kept appearing and disappearing again, with a look of sheer terror on his cloud-white face. He clearly was in over his head.

There were a lot of gypsies in Portland when I was growing up. Many lived in tenement rooms and apartments in buildings in Old Town near the Chinese district.  On Sundays, the gypsy women would break out their most colorful skirts and scarves and would stand out on the sidewalk talking and laughing, as the kids played out in the street.

fortune tellerAnd there were several gypsy businesses along Southeast 82nd Avenue in some of the neighborhoods I navigated by bike with my buddies in junior high school. Most of the businesses were fortune telling and palm reading ventures. But there were also gypsy hairdressers and auto repair enterprises. A few gypsy kids went to my junior high school. They kept to themselves, but were nice enough. There wasn’t any social stigma or anything.

So the prospect of a bunch of gypsies overrunning the Holiday Inn did not daunt me nearly to the extent it seemed to trouble the help. They were all frantic. The staff was scrambling around picking up ashtrays or anything loose that could be pocketed. The smell of fear was palpable around the place. For their part, a sizeable clan of gypsies gathered in the bar for the entertainment. They seemed passive enough. They laughed boisterously and smoked with an enthusiastic eastern European intensity not often witnessed in this region.

We had been playing the room since Thursday, so we were already set up to perform when we came down from the “green room.”  The bar was a madhouse as we entered. There were crazy gypsies everywhere, partying with an enthusiasm worthy of, well…. crazy gypsies. We’d never played for gypsies before, so we weren’t exactly sure what to play for them.

Allen remembers their hair as orange, but I remember the gypsy women’s hair as being an uniformly cranberry tint with blood orange highlights. Many of the women wore brightly-colored scarves and most wore ornate golden earrings. They would chatter and laugh, relentlessly scanning the room with nervous apprehension.

All the men sat together, smoking profusely, an ominous grey cloud hovering above them, threatening nicotine rain. Most of them wore moustaches, with heads of thick, black hair slicked back stiff. The popular fashion statement for the gentleman gypsy of the day was the plunging neckline. White shirts predominated. Some of the more adventurous among them wore white shirts with vertical stripes. Bejeweled rings and strands of gold chains seemed requisite.

i'll tumbleWe kicked off the evening with Culture Club’s “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya,” at the conclusion of which there was no discernable decline in the gypsy din. “Flashdance” seemed to raise a vague stir. “Der Kommisar” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go” went nowhere. We worked our way through the first set, but could not seem to catch the attention of our gypsy audience. Finishing up with “Mickey,” to no avail, we trudged from the stage and made our way back to the green room. It was going to be a long night.

We came back for the second set, determined to win their gypsy hearts with Loverboy, Hall and Oates, Prince, Duran Duran. The hits baby! We were pulling out all the stops. As I stepped to the mic to sing “Workin’ For a Livin’,” a wide, burly man in a white shirt, unbuttoned to the navel, with lots of gold chains draped around his chest, was standing below me with the urgent look of a worried gypsy king on his face. And, from what he said anyway, he actually was a worried gypsy king. Or king of his tribe, or clan—I never got their line of ascendancy straight. But he was worried. And he was the head guy. That much we had straight.

It seemed that his subjects were complaining. And, don’t you know, unhappy subjects make for an unhappy gypsy king. So he was unhappy. He had a request. We were familiar with musical requests. Most of the time we couldn’t fulfill them, because believe it or not, most musicians are not human jukeboxes. We did, however, eventually learn “Freebird” and a Journey song, which cut down on our request failures by about fifty percent.

But on that particular night the king of the gypsies was making a request I had never had posed before. Could we play some Kenny Rogers? Kenny Rogers? The incongruity of the request skewed my reality for an instant. Kenny Rogers? No one had ever requested Kenny Rogers before. I was certain I didn’t know any Kenny Rogers songs—I couldn’t even think of any! A couple other band members were familiar with some of his material, but none of them knew how to play any of it. No Kenny Rogers.

No Kenny Rogers? Very bad. Very bad. The king drifted off, none too happy with our exchange. We set about trying to fire up the gypsies with Huey Lewis and the News, Naked Eyes, Men at Work, David Bowie, the Pretenders. We gave them everything we had, met only with icy stares and reproachful glares.  We were in trouble. We still had half the night to go.

At the end of the set, before we could evacuate the scaffold, the gypsy king was again standing at the foot of the stage, a look of expectant impatience on his face. He wanted to know if he could use my guitar and play some Kenny Rogers songs. One rule of band is: Never give up your instrument. Guard your instrument at all cost. I said sure.

Kenny-Rogers-BEFOREThe guy proceeded to play the entire Kenny Rogers songbook. All the hits, all the B-Sides. After a while Chris the drummer and Larry the bass player jumped in to back him up. Allen might have played lead guitar on some songs. Hilda got up and sang on the duets. I just sat and got smashed on gin and tonic, as the gypsy king sailed through the early gold like “Ruby,” “Lucille” and “The Gambler” before moving on to the latter-day stuff such as “Islands in the Stream,” “Lady,” and “She Believes in Me.”

His subjects were overswept with rapturous joy. The moment he started strumming my guitar, they all flocked to the dancefloor as if a sign were flashing above the stage. Suddenly everyone was laughing and grooving to “Through the Years” and all the others. All was well with the gypsies. Their king was singing Kenny Rogers.

  III

It was at the end of a bleak October, only a year or two later. Hilda and I were in the throes of finalizing a dreary divorce from our miserably ill-starred marriage/business relationship. It was a generally depressing time. I was disconsolate, with not a lot going on in my life at the time. My relationship was gone, thus my band was gone, thus my job was gone. It was a dark time.

lew2

Lew Jones

Former college bandmate and ever the faithful friend, Lew, was on persistent lookout for anything for me to do that might help to bring me out of my funk, even if it was only for a few days. A distraction. A shiny object. And there were a few projects he came by that did offer some temporary refuge from my inconsolability. And while one event may have ultimately had the opposite effect, it remains vividly memorable in my mind some thirty years later.

Lew asked if I wanted to play for a funeral. Given my mood, a funeral seemed strangely appropriate to my own grief-stricken state of being, so I agreed to join in the fun. Perhaps I could bury my own dead things. He also brought in two brass guys whose names I don’t remember, but we’ll call them Rob and Don, because those names are representative for horn players. We rehearsed a few times. But how often do you need to rehearse for a funeral? Besides, the gypsies had only requested four songs.

Wait, wait, wait. Gypsies? Yeah, I don’t know how he did it either, but somehow Lew hooked us up with playing at a gypsy funeral. Having had some recent experience with the tribe, I felt inclined to remark about my trepidations over the outcome of the undertaking, especially as we didn’t know any Kenny Rogers material. But Lew was certain all would be well. His contact with the gypsies had been amicable and straight-forward. He understood what they wanted from us. We were going to be paid one hundred and twenty-five dollars each for a couple of hours of our time. Okay then. No problem.

We were to meet the fellow who hired us at the Pine Street Theater where old Mrs. Bihari was lying in state. From there we were to march with the procession over to Saint Francis church, maybe six blocks away, where the service was to be performed. That seemed simple enough.

downpourWe arrived at the Pine Street Theater in the midst of a remorseless drenching downpour. Waiting in the foyer for our envoy to appear, we could see in the main hall the old gal dressed in a white nightgown, spread out on a queen bed bedecked with white silk sheets, looking very angelic and quite dead. She was surrounded by weeping women, all with heads covered by dark scarves. Behind them stood the men, motionless, staring blankly at a spot in space about eight feet above the scene.

Our guide, Zindelo eventually appeared, looking very haggard. He was quite dark-complected, taller and more slender than most of the other men, with night black hair and moustache. He wore black slacks, a white oxford shirt with blue pinstripes and a black nylon flight jacket. He motioned us outside and promptly lit up a cigarette, puffing it profusely. He described for us in detail the sequence of events that would get us over to the service at the church. Our only real responsibility was to play a dirge on the trip over. We assured him that would be no problem. All I had to do was play an E minor chord on my guitar. I could handle that. The pressing problem was that it was pouring down rain.

At some point people began to gather in the vestibule. We stood in the doorway a guitar and horn at each side, and began to play Chopin’s gloomy funeral march. Over and over and over. If you think of that piece to yourself, you only make it through a time or two before you veer off the road of consciousness and lose interest entirely. There are actually a lot of pretty parts in Chopin’s piece but we didn’t play any of those.

funeral processionThe crowd at the entrance stirred and parted as six hefty men came forth bearing on their shoulders Mrs. Bihari in her bed. Zindelo gave us the nod and we walked out into the deluge, droning the death march. We didn’t make it to the corner of  9th and Sandy, maybe one hundred feet, before we were all soaked to the bone, including Mrs. Bihari who really did seem to be the most serene about the conditions—perched smartly above us all as we trudged inexorably up the hill through the onrushing creek toward the church. Born by water, borne through water.

gypsy jacket

Gypsy flight jacket

When we finally made it to the small church we members of the band were forbidden from going inside to dry off. We stood out on the loggia with a dozen or so of the men as they chain-smoked with religiously aggressive fervor. It’s my recollection all of the men looked alike, possibly all from the same family: dark haired, some with moustaches, others not. They were all dressed like Zindelo, wearing white shirts, black slacks and the same black nylon jackets with jaunty military epaulets.

While smoking ferociously, the men also gorged on chocolate—primarily Hershey bars. Suddenly, as if by some signal, seemingly every one of them produced a bottle of Chivas Regal and began guzzling with alarming gusto. As time passed, each guy would saunter over to us and offer us his bottle. Drink! At first we politely refused. Shit, things were already weird enough! But Zindelo quickly hustled over, informing us that refusing to drink a gypsy’s Chivas Regal at a funeral is blatantly disrespectful. So we drank. And drank. Jesus, did we drink.

chivasI don’t remember how long the service was. I don’t remember how long it kept raining. Although I know we did fulfill our bargain and play “Golden Earings” as they wheeled Mrs. Bihari out of the church in her shiny mahogany casket. After that I lost track of Lew and Rob and Don. I think I pretty much blacked out. I know from the hangover I experienced the next day that I probably approached alcohol toxicity levels. It was one of my lifetime epic drunks, ranking right up there with the Decriminalization Party of 1973.

I think Lew drove. I hope I didn’t. Anyway, somehow we ended up about ten miles away at the Rose City Cemetary up on Northeast Fremont. As we made our way down the puddled asphalt toward the burial plot, the sun broke cheerily from behind the clouds. It shone brightly on a party of thirty or forty sobbing women of all ages and maybe thirty stern men who, among other things, clearly did not want to be there. It was a packed house.

Lid closed, the shining, ornately carved wooden casket was perched above the final resting place, and the crowd gathered close to hear the priest recite the final prayer. It was a touching moment. I haven’t been to a lot of funerals in my life. It was a very nice ceremony.

The priest concluded his duties and walked away from the grave. The gathering of people closed in tightly around three attendants as they began to slowly lower the casket into the ground. In an instant there were Chivas bottles anew everywhere, and everyone—men, women and children—poured the booze on the box as it was going down. In addition currency began descending into the grave, mostly twenties, but there were larger denominations, being strewn indiscriminately, falling like rain into the void.

This land is your land

This Land Is Your Land

Zindello appeared from somewhere, signalling us to play the final song of our set. And so with the sun shining brightly on that wet October day, as poor Mrs. Bihari was slowly lowered to her final rest, Rob and Don raised their gleaming horns heaven high to accompany Lew and me as we banged our guitars and, as requested, belted out a spirited version of “This Land is Your Land.” The attendants dutifully retrieved their ropes and began shoveling dirt into the grave as we continued singing the song over and over again until all the mourners left the site.

 

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Have you written a book? Wanna pitch it to a literary agent or publisher? For God’s sakes learn to write a proper query letter. Learn to boil your book down to a couple hundred choice words. But make it exciting. Make the jaded reader of your query want to read the book. Seems easy enough, eh? Try describing your favorite book in 200 words that somehow conveys the impact as well as the story. Maybe you’d like to start with the Bible.

The Bible X

God said to Noah
You should build yourself an ark.
It’s gonna get wet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Dreams of the Beams of Light

I

I had just turned six when my family elected to move from the Los Angeles area up to Portland that summer. My dad and a couple of his buddies had been working for the Southern California Gas Company. They saw in Portland possible happy hunting grounds within the burgeoning Oregonian natural gas furnace and appliance industry—where it was their intention to create a flourishing service and repair empire.

Looking out the front door

Looking out the front door

I wasn’t against the move, necessarily—not particularly fond of Southern California (as much as a six-year-old can have preferences about such things). We lived at the very north end of the San Fernando Valley, where beyond our housing tract lay only barren desert: sand and sagebrush, creosote, tumbleweeds and cactus. My recollections of the two years we lived in that neighborhood are an endless grayish, beige brown in tone. No, for my part, I was all for pulling up stakes and getting out of Dodge. The grass looked greener up North. At least in my estimation as a six year old it did.

Oregon

Oregon

For one thing, Oregon smelled a hell of a lot better. I’ll always remember the mossy, soggy, decaying balsamic scent. I still capture a faint Proustian hint of that fragrance at times when walking in the woods. It was a different world. As far as I recall, I had only seen actual rain just a few times in my life before we moved to Oregon. People had lawns! There were trees. Open fields.

When we first got to Oregon, we stayed in Milwaukie for a couple of weeks with Ray and Jean, some friends of my parents. While we were out looking for a house to rent in the area, we frequently traveled up and down Oatfield Road, the main thoroughfare in that neighborhood. On several occasions something very strange happened.

Old man at the side of the road

Old man at the side of the road

As we drove along in our powder blue Ford station wagon we sometimes passed a weary, old, white haired man ambling slowly along the shoulder of the road. He was always dressed in the same worn, gray work pants and dingy white shirt. He wore suspenders and sometimes he carried a dark coat with him, slung over his arm as he walked

Every time, as we passed him, he would stop walking and stare at our car—directly at me. His stern gaze inevitably met with mine, and his piercing blue eyes would widen as if he recognized me. It never failed to send a chill down my spine. As we drove past him, I would turn in my seat to catch another glimpse out the rear window, but by then he had vanished. No one else ever saw the man. My parents thought I was just imagining things, or inventing them. But they always registered some surprise whenever I brought up the mysterious guy as we traveled down Oatfield

We soon moved into a white, ‘30s era bungalow on the corner of 32nd and Evergreen at the south side of Milwaukie, about a mile from Ray and Jean’s place. The property had a little creek running through the sloping back yard, an open field next door on the north side of the house and small forests across the streets on the west and south sides. It was like living in a residential park. Paths wove through both forests, thick with typical Oregonian vegetation.

Early one Sunday (I know it was a Sunday, because my parents were still in bed), not long after we moved into the new house, I was exploring the larger forest across 32nd, where lay the headwaters of the little creek that ran across our back yard. It was a misty gray, moist morning. I aimlessly wandered down a trail through the undergrowth, occasionally looking in the shallow creek for crawdads, which closely resembled the scorpions more customary in my native land. I closely observed and noted ferns and other flora unique to the region.

Had I been paying attention to where I was going, the incident probably could have been avoided, but there it is—callow youth. Upon taking one (wrong) step, the ground yielded squishy beneath my feet. Moving. Faintly squealing squeakily. I looked down to see four or six squirming pink and gray baby things under my foot. With a shudder, I recoiled in horror.

Mama Possum

Mama Possum

Suddenly, farther down the narrow corridor I could see what at first I thought might be a cat approaching at high speed from the south. Unfortunately instead of a kitty, it was a hissing, barking mama possum, approximately the size of a Jack Russell terrier. And it was rumbling down the path directly toward me with some kind of badass retribution on its mind. It was in that instant I discovered that whatever that thing was—it had a long conical snout and ugly, gnashing, jagged teeth. And upon closer inspection, it obviously in no way resembled Jingle Bells, my poor departed cat.

I wasted no time in getting the hell out of there. Screaming bloody murder, I ran all the way home, busting into my parents room where, in retrospect, I’m pretty sure they were having sex. Hysterical child interuptus apparently made my unintelligible ravings about some saw-toothed monster across the street sound like maybe some of those “old man by the side of the road” tales I had been spinning of late. Be that as it may, I never again ventured into that forest unaccompanied, nor without some sort of weapon. Vigilance became the watchword.

That September I started school. Mom accompanied me the first day. Upon our arrival, I was not feeling positive about the conditions at the school. For one thing, there were other kids—strangers—in the room. I was under the mistaken impression that it was going to be some sort of one-on-one learning experience, a brisk dialog between my mentor and I. Instantly I felt a sense of intense betrayal, a poor little lamb being led to slaughter.

I remember sitting near the back of the row of desks next to the window, a whole roomful of other nervous little kids twitching and whimpering like a passel of baby possums. About every minute or so, I would look over my shoulder toward the storage area near the door, where Mom and a couple of other overprotective mothers stood looking on supportively. It’ll be okay, Honey.

Inevitably, that moment came when I looked over my shoulder and she had vanished. It was almost like the old man by the side of the road. She just disappeared. I remember sinking into a swoon of despondency that lasted many days. Mom and I re-enacted that first episode on several more mornings. I did not take readily to the atmosphere at school.

For one thing, the room was far too brightly lit. It seemed, well, institutional. And the other children were out of control, acting like six-year olds. What’s more, Mrs. Ystad wore big, heavy, brown, horn-rimmed glasses that completely obscured her face. From my vantage point she looked like a pair of glasses with two eyebrows and a mouth.

Eventually, I accepted the fact that I was to ride the school bus for Flying Dutchboy eternity, there to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous sixth graders and other unruly entities. Still, as time passed I managed to make a few friends. David Cookson, Bobby Wisner and Tommy Phelps were chief among them. Tommy lived on Nixon below the field next door, down a path that crossed the trickling creek. David lived just down from Tommy, off of Aldercrest. I didn’t know where Bobby lived.

Lightning

Lightning

One day in late October I was over at Tommy’s after school, hanging out, watching Mister Moon on TV. It was intermittently stormy and rainy outside, with a few brief sun breaks. At the show’s conclusion I took advantage of a sun break to make a dash for home. I crossed the creek and made it up the path to the top of the hill when it began to rain again torrentially, and a bolt of lightning flashed brilliant white in front of me. Having never seen lightning before, I experienced some mild alarm, but continued on along the route back to our house. About half way across the field I encountered a low blackberry bush that was burnt and smoldering in the rain. I’ve always wondered about that.

II

It was about that same time that I started having problems with earaches. They were frequent and often agonizingly painful. And they often kept me up at night. It was a miserable time. Mom took me to the doctor and it turned out my tonsils and adenoids were inflamed and causing infections in my Eustachian tube. It was determined that an operation was necessary in order to remove the offending tissues.

So, before dawn the day after Christmas my parents drove me across town to Saint Vincent’s hospital where the operation was to be performed. I had been enticed into cooperating with the whole scheme under the impression that I would spend my convalescence reclined in ice cream heaven—“all the ice cream I could eat.” Those were the exact words.

That sounded great to me. One would think that I would have been more wary given the treachery I had only recently endured over my entry into the world of scholastics. But alas, one of my chief features, that of gullibility, has now been fully exposed, though it’s much too late in the game for anyone to possibly profit from that disclosure.

On the table

On the table

The memory remains quite vivid of laying on the gurney as a masked nurse in a blue skullcap wheeled me into the operating room. The light above me was very bright white. There were three or four other faceless people hovering around. I was quite frightened. Someone placed an oxygen mask over my face, cool air gently forcing its way into my lungs.

But the air abruptly changed to some malignant petroleum wind, like alcohol or airplane glue, but even worse. Ether. I began to panic, telling the shapes to take the damn mask away, the air was bad. One of them told me to “just blow the bad air away.” Two puffs and I was down.

Sun

Sun

And transported to a blood-maroon hued hall. A great glowing golden sun hung on the wall at the far end of the massive room. Indifferent shadows danced at the periphery, and loomed and pooled gloomily at my side. I was not so much in fear of the spectacle as in awe. I had never seen anything like that before. Everything went well, operation a rousing success. I exited the operating theater tonsil and adenoid free, ready to resume my life as a child.

Ice cream prize

Ice cream prize

I awoke in a dim grog and promptly vomited blood all over the hospital bed—immediately screaming out in delirious terror. Nurses came and things were eventually made right. Before long my ice cream prize arrived in a stainless steel bowl on a tray. However, one unforeseen wrench in the works was the fact that I could not bear to swallow. My swollen throat would not allow it. All the ice cream one could want, but throat too raw to swallow. Rime of the Youthful Tonsilectomy. It was abject hell.

Eventually they sent me home and somewhere along the line I was finally rewarded with the afore-promised ice cream indulgence, though it was a hollow bounty and by no means worth the effort it took to acquire. Duly noted.

Winter passed rather uneventfully, settling into the dull routine of relentless first grade rote repetition, interspersed with brief interludes of incoherent play in the gym at recesses and after lunch. Tommy, Bobby, David and I became fast friends, spending most of our free time together, looking for any innocent forms of anarchy available within our limited sphere.

I’m not sure who it was—probably David—but someone hatched the idea of a competition—something dangerous, something outside accepted boundaries. Something wild! Since it was his brainstorm in the first place, he elected to initiate the proceedings. The four of us stood outside the girls lavatory, while David worked up his courage.

He drew a deep breath, and without warning sprinted through the in-door to the girls’ lavatory. He stayed in there for fifteen or twenty seconds while the panic-stricken girls screamed uncontrollably. It was delightful pandemonium. As David came running out, Tommy galloped in, the object being to remain inside longer than anyone else. He definitely stayed in there for a greater duration than David had, a count well-past twenty. Then he tore out as Bobby scurried in. And he stayed in there longer than the other two had. Around twenty-five, I think. That’s what I counted.

Hysterical girls

Hysterical girls

Then came my turn. I dashed through the door as Bobby scampered out. Inside, girls were jumping up and down, waving their hands frantically, crying, running in aimless circles—too frightened to simply leave the premises. Quickly scuttling over to the wall next to the washbasins, I squatted down on my haunches, buried my head in my arms, and counted to forty.

Secure in the knowledge that victory was most certainly mine, I trotted triumphantly from the girls’ can, directly into Mrs. Mitchell—who was standing stiffly next to my friends, an enraged expression on her somber face. Mrs. Mitchell was a tall, slender woman with graying hair and she wore a long, dark skirt, which enveloped me like a wave as I plunged headlong forward.

Idealized Hokey Pokey

Idealized Hokey Pokey

Mrs. Mitchell was not a woman with whom to be trifled. She was known among her second grade students as a dark force. Strict and demanding. She taught my class for rhythms hour on Friday mornings in the rec room, where we did the Hokey-Pokey and we shook it all about with military proficiency. Left right, left right.

As I desperately swam in the tides of her voluminous skirt, Mrs. Mitchell fished around in the wake until she caught an ear. Grabbing it indelicately, she dragged me howling up to Mister Spring’s office. There, she pushed me down onto a wooden chair outside the room where he sat at his desk, talking on the phone. Mrs. Mitchell told me to stay there and not to move until the bell rang to go back to class. She informed me that I would be spending every recess in that chair for the next two weeks.

Mister Spring

Mister Spring

I was petrified at that prospect. Mister Spring was a notoriously harsh disciplinarian, who stood for no shenanigans, and ran a very tight ship. He was in his fifties, of average height. Thin. A dashing shock of cloud white hair. His face was angular and leathery tan. He had a mole the size and placement of which was identical to that of Abraham Lincoln.

Mister Spring sat working at his desk, and occasionally peered out at me through a window into the foyer where I sat. From time to time he would get up from his desk and wander out of the room, ignoring me whenever he passed. He never once addressed me, or my infraction, over the two weeks of my detention. It was as if I wasn’t there.

For my part, I mostly sat there meditating, humming to myself, thinking about what I had done, pretty certain that my days as a lavatory racer were at an end. The guys and I had acquired a reputation throughout the lower grades as being devil-may-care mayhem makers. And while that attention was well worth the penalty, I was much relieved when that phase was finally over.

III

Shortly after my seventh birthday that spring, I began to experience strange, recurring dreams. They were dreams outside my ken. Not of this world. Awe-inspiring dreams. Unexplainable. Mysterious. Typically they happened a couple times a week.

Beams of Light

Beams of Light

The dream would begin as a single beam of light, spanning all dark space and perpetual time. The beam emitted a subtle pitch, vibrating almost imperceptibly a slight color. As the dream transpired, the beam began to merge with other beams of light. They all emitted a unique frequency and vibrated a vaguely different spectral hue.

Sphere of Light

Sphere of Light

Slowly a billion separate beams, a trillion separate beams, an universe full—each its own distinctive vibration—from all directions, converged into while emerging from a great repository sphere of immaculate white light. The sphere sang a perfect soprano mother sigh, the all thing of every, each tine of the faultless orb, chiming the harp of an eternity of celestial souls.

The dreams didn’t frighten me, or at least not as they should have. I was fascinated by their inarticulable majesty and drawn like a moth to the magical musical fire in it all. It was the endless reverberation of the herald angels. It seemed to me, in my naïve universe, to be the truth.

Milwaukee Braves

Milwaukee Braves

At about the same time, I became aware of the sport of baseball. The Milwaukee Braves were doing very well. As the season progressed into the summer, the Braves remained the leaders in the National League race. I was absolutely brimming with civic pride. I did not understand baseball at all other than to toss a ball with my dad. But our guys, our Milwaukie Braves were takin’ it to the streets! I learned baseball and geography on approximately the same time line. But not for another year or so.

The King

The King

That same summer, my cousins came up from California to visit us. My cousin Jimmy was six or seven years older than me and was crazy, man, crazy over Elvis. He had all of Elvis’ singles: “All Shook Up,” “Teddy Bear,” “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Jailhouse Rock,” all of them. It chafed my dad no end to have to let his nephew play those infernal things on his beloved hi-fi system, the one he built himself and of which he was extremely proud. Only cool jazz was supposed to emanate from that special speaker he had crafted, with the exclusive coaxial duplex driver and the deluxe folded horn cabinet.

Elvis sounded like a million bucks through that sound system! And I started to pay closer attention to rock music than I had in the past (when I was six). American Bandstand began broadcasting nationally around the same time, so there was an immediate conduit for that newfound interest as well. Mom always listened to Al Jarvis and watched Peter Potter’s Juke Box Jury when we lived in California, so I was, like, hip to the hits, man. But the rock and roll was a bit of a new thing.

Early that summer, a couple of weeks after public school let out, Mom decided that my brother and sister and I needed religion—so she sent us to a “catechism camp” at St. John the Baptist parochial school in Milwaukie. My dad was raised Catholic, although he only went to church on Christmas and Easter. The only prayerful words I ever heard him utter were “God damn it” and “Jesus H. Christ.” Still, Mom had converted to Catholicism to marry Dad and felt duty-bound to protect us from going to Hell, if it was at all within her power. So we dutifully attended mass every Sunday.

Jesus healing a deaf man

Jesus healing a deaf man

Catechism camp was relentlessly dreary. Perfectly useful summer days wasted in a drab, institutional-green room with nothing for distraction but a blackboard and everywhere renditions of Jesus walking among lambs, Jesus preaching to people, Jesus tending to the sick and dying. The fellow seemed well intentioned enough, as far as I could tell.

Cheerless, colorless nuns floated around those classes, glumly preaching the harsh black and white dogma of the Catholic church. Occasionally a grim priest, almost always Father Wachter—not a man of many words—would address the class.

Father Wachter

Father Wachter

He would enter the room with jaws clenched, and standing there before us would deliver in a dour monotone a reproachful sermon as to how we were all doomed to the merciless fires of unceasing hell unless we got ourselves intimately familiar with the Sacraments of Penance and Communion without delay. That being made darkly clear, he would turn and walk directly out of the assembly without saying another word. He did that several times in the two weeks I was stuck that class. It never failed to send shivers up my spine.

nun1

Sister Thaddeus Clare

My teacher nun that summer was Sister John Mary. In her I learned a profound lesson that served me well for the rest of my Catholic servitude: Never trust a nun with a man’s name in her patronage. In those days, your Sister Matthew Theresas, or Sister Thaddeus Clares, and Sister Rose Timothys were sure to be bad news. Poor, pitiable, humorless drones in black habits framed in white.

Sister John Mary

Sister John Mary

Sister John Mary was the most severe of them all. She radiated cold, bleak despondency. She was tall and deathly gaunt, her cheekbones protruding ominously. She carried with her a wooden footruler, the one with the metal edge, often slapping it in her hand to maintain our attention. It was Sister John Mary’s charge to instruct us in the plan for avoiding Hell. And it wasn’t going to be any picnic.

Our four hour days primarily consisted of learning the Apostles Creed, which was the basic oath to the tenets of the church; and also the prayers necessary to save our wretched souls: the “Hail Mary,” the “Our Father” and the “Act of Contrition”—the password prayers required to avoid the certainty of hell. We kids had been baptized. So we already had Original sin out of the way. But there were still the other obstacle sins that we needed to constantly confront, confess and endlessly pray away, ever unceasingly.

So, in order for us to be chaste enough as seven-year old children to receive Holy Communion in the fall, we needed to be heartily sorry for whatever violations against whomever we may have committed up to that point. Therefore we were going to need to confess those sins to someone (usually Father Wachter) behind a dark screen in a little black-curtained booth at the back of the church—always on Saturday afternoons, when any sane child would be out doing pretty much anything besides confessing sins one had to make up in order just to confess them.

Hell

Hell

But deeply impressed with the importance of avoiding something closely resembling Dante’s depiction of Hell, I committed to memory the creed and prayers that were so damned important in ensuring my infinite innocence before the grand court—although there were occasions when I confused them with the Cub Scout oath, which I was also attempting to master at around the same time.

The brain-washing went well enough until we hit a snag on day seven. I asked about the beams of light. I asked Sister John Mary about the beams of light that made a colorful sound, that all merged into the big ball of light with the voice of all life and time. The other kids looked at me dumbfounded. I wasn’t trying to be impertinent. I figured the beams of light had something to do with God and Jesus. And, logically, she seemed to me to be the most likely resource concerning such spiritual provisions.

However, Sister John Mary stared at me with a shocked spiteful sneer, as if I were a lower order of demon. She rushed like a shadow from the front of the room to my side. Without a word of interaction, she ordered me to extend my right hand, palm down. I remember looking at her inquisitively, as if we were going to play a game of some sort. Without further interaction, she drew the ruler, metal edge exposed, and smartly rapped me three times across the knuckles of my fingers.

A fine line of blood instantaneously formed across all four knuckles and I peered up at her, wounded in every way. Without a word she returned to the front of the class and went back to whatever she had been indoctrinating us with, probably a perfect “Act of Contrition.” I never brought up the beams of light again. But I never forgot them either. Something changed in me that day—something for which I would not find a word to describe for another year or two.

Henry Aaron

Henry Aaron

The Milwaukee Braves won the World Series that year and Henry Aaron became my favorite player, because his name was closely associated in every way with the team’s success, especially that year. The civic response to all of this around the City of Milwaukie was decidedly low-key I felt. I didn’t see any signs of a celebration whatsoever. I was a bit disappointed in that.

Eventually Geography became a subject and I discovered Milwaukie, Oregon and Milwaukee, Wisconsin were actually two places quite some distance apart. Still I ended up choosing my favorite professional football team based on that understanding: the Green Bay Packers.

About that time I was made aware of the word “agnostic” and became one the moment I heard the definition. Actually I had become one the instant Sister John Mary cut me across the knuckles. The scars from that cut have never healed.

The dreams of the beams of light began to subside around that time too. Eventually, not long after Christmas time and the birth of my youngest brother, the dreams stopped altogether. My parents felt compelled by Catholic guilt to force me to continue attending some form of catechism until my Confirmation at age eleven, when I was allowed to choose my own spiritual path going forward. I declared agnosticism and quit going to church altogether.

light beam 3And as that path unfolded over the years, I kept a promise to myself, one that I made at age eight when I stopped having them—to never forget the dreams. Through all the abundant changes that have manifested within my life, I have never forgotten and will always remember as the one great truth this single spark of light that spirals a vibration of my own lone existence through all indefinite time.

 

 

********************************************************************************************************************

 

The latest installment of Biblical Haiku:
The Bible IX

The new testament
Tells the story of a guy.
Didn’t hang out long.

 

 

 

From: Jobs I Once Held That Now No Longer Exist

I’ve been devoting a lot of thought, of late, to the myriad-stranded, convoluted web that is my employment history. As I pointed out last summer, the job at Small Egg Roll turned out to be the worst—and by far the most disappointing—of all of them, which is especially disheartening in the respect that it was the one job among all of them for which I actually had considerable aptitude and interest, and for which I was best qualified. In most instances, that wasn’t so much the case.

Reflecting on the “early days” of my nascent career as an adult, I can summon to mind several dubious instances of on-the-job experience, which subsequently afforded me very little in the way of applicable real world skills. What has happened to the call for fir cone dryer workers, for God’s sake?

The Sun

The Sun

Yes. Fir cone dryers. For eons of millenia the job of drying fir cones was left to the sun—always the most efficient at such chores, what with having nothing better to do than burn for billions of years and all. A heat source is, of course, at the core of any drying operation worth its seed.

But then mankind came along. And, as has long been known, mankind is always in a hurry—in a hurry to make the sun burn faster, hotter, longer, stronger, and with better air circulation. Thus the fir cone dryer was born. What would be the necessity of drying a fir cone in the first place you might very well ask?

There was a time when there was no cloning. I know that is very difficult for some to conceive. But it’s true. There was no cloning. Well, technically, Nature has been cloning all along, but for this particular postulate we need to leave things like the sun and Nature out of the equation. It is Man’s endless quest to duplicate these natural devices that have led Humankind to invent important apparatuses to duplicate Nature’s weaponry, just in case we destroy the original model. Hey, it’s happened!

Progress

It was probably going on before he came along, but you can blame Gifford Pinchot for implementing the concept of reforestation on a National forest level. Reforestation allowed the big timber companies to feel okay about clear cutting every last stick of original growth timber in the country. It’s okay folks, we’re replanting! It’ll all be replaced. We’ll plant little babies around the stumps of the great giants we cut down. What a system!

So, back in the days before there were clones, seeds were required in order to propagate the species. In the summer, fir trees produce fruit in the form of cones, which bear inside of them the seeds for creating little baby trees. As the cones mature, some will open while on the tree, allowing their seeds to fly upon the breeze, to land where we know not.

Fir Cone

But, as is often the case in life unfortunately, other cones fall from the tree unopened, as yet still fettered full with the seed which they are mandated to scatter. So, down they go, whereupon the sun will continue the process it began when the cone was still attached to the tree. The sun will gently heat the fallen fir cone so that, eventually, after not long at all in sun time, the cone will dry and open, and the seeds will fall out onto the forest floor. Many creatures of the wild (squirrels and rats especially, I might point out) consider fir seeds to be something of a delicacy. But, as these things go in nature, some seeds remain behind to sprout into seedlings and eventually grow into significant bodies of wood.

Such a process, of course, requires a great deal of time by our standards. According to the rings on the trees we’ve cut down, it can take hundreds of years for one to get monstrously huge. Here again, while hundreds of years doesn’t mean shit to a tree, humans are an impatient lot and they want everything yesterday, including their trees and the seeds required to get the ball rolling on fulfilling that desire. Fellas, we need a fir cone dryer!

Main St. Dallas, Oregon

Main St. Dallas, Oregon

Now I came to the fir cone game through the back door. Sally and I had recently quit school and moved to Dallas, Oregon ten miles and a world away from the comparative collegial world, which lay in the Monmouth and Independence vicinity to the east. We chose to move to Dallas, I guess, to find new opportunities, though what opportunities those might have been were apparently not particularly well defined, as I don’t remember. It is the Polk county seat, so potentially there was some allure in that fact, though I doubt it. That doesn’t seem our speed.

Well, we did move out of the house in Independence because, as a newly founded couple, we felt the need to strike out upon our own—leaving behind my college roommates Tom and Doug—to forge in the smithy of our souls the uncreated conscience of our relationship. So, that and the fact that—as was customary in a household with Tom, Doug and me in it—there were at least three (actually five, I believe) dogs and an indeterminable number of cats, in that specific instance, jammed into a little two-bedroom bungalo. So, I suppose the motivation may have been weighted toward Sally’s perspective. It was a long time ago. We relocated.

We moved into a sad little dollhouse in Dallas, which was fine, as we had no belongings to put in it anyway. It wasn’t like we required spacious quarters. I believe the biggest bone of contention (as it were) was that the backyard was fenced, in order to corral Spider and Gypsy, who were wont to roam when given the opportunity. They were themselves a young couple, wild in their ways.

The place was on Southwest 10th Street between Birch and Cherry on the hill overlooking Fairview Avenue by the A&W at the western edge of town. I’m not sure what we did for money at first. I believe rent was $85 a month and bills amounted to about $25, so we cobbled that together from leftover student loan money, I would imagine. Allen moved in for a time into the cubby-hole room in the converted attic, second-story plywood affair. I’m sure we charged him a princely sum to maintain those luxurious quarters. We were merciless.

I don’t think it took very long before it became apparent that a job or two might be required somewhere along the line. My only previous job experience was a mostly failed experiment in the construction trade the summer following my senior year in high school. The only benefit that came of that experience was the fact that it could be noted on subsequent job applications. More about construction adventures another time.

Filberts, For the Pickin'

Filberts, for the Pickin’

At first we tried “picking” filberts (hazelnuts) at an extensive orchard out toward Pedee. That’s a terrific job if you like to be bent over in the autumn dew rooting through fallen leaves for the husk-y little suckers like a truffle snuffer. I think we made like two or three dollars in four hours or so, before it started raining so hard that we quit for the day. We never went back there again, I assure you.

Some Town's Country Inn

A Country Kitchen Kind of Place

Sometime not long after that, Sally found a job at a little restaurant on the other side of town at the Country Kitchen (everything out there is named “Country” something. Hell they ARE out in the country and they are mighty damn hickily proud of the whole damn deal). The place was about the size of a double wide with similar ambience, if you were to fill it with a counter and three or four booths, thirty smelly guys and a palpable layer of cigarette smoke.

I think the only job requirement was to get the orders right and to battle the indefatigable, degenerate advances of the horde of misfit and misbegotten males, relentlessly bent on converting trees into some unrecognizable form. Sally was capable of contending with that sort of bullshit without a lot of undue duress, therefore the job was hers and one aspect of her personality was in its element. She held court.

lumberjacks1

Waitin’ fer Breakfast

She worked the morning shift at the Country Kitchen, four-thirty to two in the afternoon, serving greasy breakfasts and bestowing endless cups of coffee to loggers preparing to ride the crummy out to the woods of the nearby Pacific Coast range to denude any remaining pristine patches of forest. No sooner was that clan gone, around six, than the guys who worked at the Willamette Industries mill at the south end of town would trundle in. They’d leave around seven-thirty and all the construction crews would show up, seeking fortification before they headed out to their various job sites. It was a regular eco-system. The fellers, the planers, and the builders. Nothing left but saw dust and fir cones.

Stumpy, Three-Finger Bill, and Lefty--Lucky in the Foreground

Three-Finger Bill, Stumpy and Lefty–Lucky in the Foreground

Oh yeah, fir cones. So Sally had her finger on the local employment pulse at the Country Kitchen. She knew too of my limited job history, lack of any real proficiencies, and my incredible phobia for losing digits and/or appendages—a fear that in the community of Dallas was widely scorned and ridiculed by the likes of Lucky, Lefty, Stumpy and Three-Finger Bill. However, despite her diligent efforts, Sally was unable to immediately generate any satisfactory leads for my narrow occupational skill set. Still, I persevered.

Falls City, Oregon when the Town was Thriving

Falls City, Oregon when the Town was Thriving

Through a friend (one of like ten guys named Mike I knew back then) who lived out in the tiny coast range timber dimlet of Falls City, I had occasionally found labor (the term “work” seems so formal), picking Douglas fir cones. Commensurate with my resume, it was a low expectation job, to be sure, one that in many ways bore a distinct resemblance to filbert picking, an occupation for which I had demonstrated some limited capacity, though that was perhaps coupled with a distinct lack of ambition and enthusiasm.

The job responsibilities of a fir cone picker were few. One was encouraged to fill a burlap sack with the things, picked up from the ground by the novice, or expertly plucked from the boughs above by veteran fir cone pickers, such as my friend, Mike. Were one to successfully fill a bag with fir cones—which, while similar to filling a bag with filbert clusters, was considerably easier and less time-consuming to accomplish—an opportunity was thus created for the prospect of fair recompense for the effort. There was the reasonable expectation to get paid a couple of bucks for a filled sack at the fir cone dryer loading dock.

A Fine Fir for Pickin' Cones

A Fine Fir for Pickin’ Cones

Soon I was scaling forty or fifty feet up young fir trees, climbing to the upper limbs where the cones were easy picking. Filling several sacks with cones was easily accomplished up there, especially if one didn’t mind heights. Among my other disinclinations in life, heights ranks chief among them, just behind loss of limbs. However, Mike taught me how to ride the outer boughs, gently sliding down on the furthest limbs from the top of the tree to the ground, assuaging to a great degree my apprehensions in regard to gravity, as encountered from a lofty perch among the firs.

That endeavor went well, as far as it went. But I longed for stability, a future. I longed for permanence. I longed for warmth. Winter was approaching. As it so happened, one day while delivering our load of sacks to the fir cone dryer dock, where we got weighed up and paid. Wild Bill, the boss man of the entire dryer operation, made it generally known that they were hiring. Eureka! I didn’t need to be told twice. It was under cover from the rain. It was warm. It required very little extended effort and even less consistent thought. There was a lot of down time, passed in countless intoxicating ways.

Not long after I was hired, Allen got hooked up working there too, most likely of his own initiative. It wasn’t like I had any pull with Wild Bill or anything. The fir cone dryer lay fixed upon a rolling hill, about a mile out of town on the Kings Valley Highway. It looked like an old, weathered barn—which may very well have been one of its former incarnations. I never asked.

Most likely it was always some sort of dryer. There are plum orchards abounding in that green region of the mid-Willamette Valley. Lots of cherries. Filberts too, of course. All might require a dryer in some instances. I can’t imagine that a fir cone dryer differs very much from something like a prune dryer, the process and preferred outcome being essentially the same.

A Prime Barn for a Fir Cone Dryer

A Prime Barn for a Fir Cone Dryer

The design of the structure thoughtfully utilized the lay of the land. The dryer itself was a segmented wooden shaft enclosed inside a two-story barn. The shaft was about twelve feet wide—divided by two partitions that formed three compartments—and it was six feet high. It descended from the top story to the lower, twenty-five feet in length, at a gradual declining gradient. At the bottom, an oil furnace was mounted in a smaller structure abutted to one side of the barn, with massive air ducts leading into the shaft.

Just off the “highway” at the front, there was a small gravel parking lot. The loading dock and storage area adjoined the building on the town side. There was a cramped office with a door out to the dock and a door opposite that opened into to the work area at the top end of the dryer. Beneath the window between the office and the exterior entry doorway at the other side of the barn, sacks of cones were stacked and served as an impromptu row of seats.

Rookies primarily tended to remain in that vicinity. That’s where you learned the ropes. The demands of the position were few. Those there were involved some occasional moderate exertion and plenty of waiting around—which I was pretty good at, as occupations go.

Somebody's Idea of a Fir Cone Dryer Operation

Somebody’s Idea of a Fir Cone Dryer Operation

The action portion of the day was spent cutting open the twine-sewn burlap sacks of (usually) wet cones and distributing them upon the drying screens. Once the cones were evenly spread upon those trays, a guy would feed each one down into one of the dryer via slots at the sides of the each compartment wall. Five screens could be slid down per slot, and the slots were spaced about a eighteen inches apart, horizontally—so that the hot air of the furnace could circulate among the cones. Altogether there were three chutes twenty-five feet long, with four planes of five trays. A lot of cones! Forty or fifty sacks at a crack.

Typically it took the better part of a couple of hours for two guys to perform the task. One guy would cut open the sacks with a curved knife, dumping the cones on a screen. The other guy would spread them out evenly, and then slide the trays down the shafts.

Each row had to be addressed from top to bottom, as extending too far laterally on any one level would create certain future regretful acrobatics in trying to slide the other segments of screens into place. It was hot work. Even in the chilly, wet late fall, the place was toasty—and fragrant. It always smelled of musty balsamic forest and Christmastime around there.

It could take up to four hours for the cones to bake sufficiently enough for them to open and drop their seed to the floor of the drying shaft. It was a hiatus during which “work,” such as we knew it, would come to a complete halt and “break time” would ensue.

Workin' Hard? Or Hardly Workin'?

Workin’ Hard? Or Hardly Workin’?

Around six-thirty the early birds would arrive to convene the Royal Order of the Fir Cone Dryer Friars social club for yet another evening of merriment. Most came packing a bottle of something stiff or at least a six-pack. Several guys would show up with guitars. Rick. Mike (another Mike) played guitar. So did Allen. Me too. So did Lee.

Lee was a wistful wisp of a man, prematurely old, with a jaunty black moustache and a permanent five-day growth of salt and pepper stubble scattered on a gaunt, hollow-haunted visage. He had a sweet, pudgy, wife with glowing roseate skin, who was very plain; and two cherubic blue-eyed young daughters. The four of them lived in a small, ramshackle yellow rental on Ellendale Loop at the far outskirts of town.

That's Lee in the Back

That’s Lee in the Back

Whenever I read Carlos Castaneda books, I would always picture Lee in the role of Don Juan. He was a restless lonesome wind, sonambulently ambling the dryer premeses like a persistently distracted ghost. I was never absolutely sure of his position there. I thought he might be some sort of watchman—as we worked the swing shift, from four to midnight, and probably needed security—though I can’t imagine what for. Maybe he performed some other function in the grand scheme of things, I don’t know. He just wandered around.

Artist's Depiction of Wild Bill

Artist’s Depiction of Wild Bill

Allen remembers Wild Bill looking like Lee Marvin. I remember him to resemble a red-faced Patrick Dennehy. He probably looked like James Coburn. He was in his late thirties, broad, with sandy graying hair and a certain larger than life quality. We agree that his chief feature was that he popped open a can of Oly at any available opportunity—which was most of the time. Wild Bill served as host when the festivities would get under way. Eventually he would head out to his pickup and down a succession of beers, blankly gazing out the windshield while listening to Charlie Rich and Donna Fargo on the radio.

Yer Everyday Lift Carrier

Yer Everyday Lift Carrier

The Social Club served as a refuge for old-timers and misfits—castoffs from the slowly dying timber industry. With few forests left to fell, or logs left to mill into boards and beams, work had become scarce. It was true they were hiring at the Caterpillar plant and Towmotor. Those two operations pretty much kept Dallas and much of Polk County alive. But most of the Clubbers were too decrepit or inept to be retrained for a position so sophisticated as D2 bulldozer assembly or the manufacture of lift carriers.

Many of the old farts would come by just to get away from the little woman bedeviling them at home and to get a snoot full without her knowing about it. The younger guys turned up to hang out (as well at the dryer as anywhere else in Dallas), get a free buzz on and jam. It was pretty much a nightly affair.

Bucky and his crew of two from down below, didn’t participate in playing music. They’d come up at break and pretty much keep to themselves. They sat bunched together on a row of sacks along the side wall next to the office, chain-smoking cigarettes, staring vacantly into space. Bucky was in his early 30s, round-faced, effusive curly blond hair stuffed under a dirty black Greek fisherman’s hat. He was a typical country clyde, nice enough guy, with a ferrety face and big, wide, buck teeth. He maintained and operated the furnace and oversaw his seed sacking crew of two down at the bottom of the shaft.

So we’d sit around for the better part of four hours getting smashed and playing guitars. There might be as many as twenty guys sitting around doing nothing—although only seven of us were getting paid to do so. Allen was by far the best guitarist. Allen always was the best guitarist in any situation, under any conditions. Mike played with a sort of bluesy, Dead-y, country flair indigenous to the region at the time. I’ve always been pretty much of a strummer, rhythm guitar guy.

Rick was a rhythm guitarist too, but he had a voice that was as big and husky as he was. He was blind in one eye and it had a tendency to wander, so that sometimes its gaze might follow you around while he was looking in a completely different direction. It was often quite unnerving, especially if you had never before witnessed the phenomenon.

I would guess that it was that eye (or the general regional malaise) that prevented Rick from meeting with great success. He wrote wonderful songs. The lyrics were typically meaningless, but the words always sounded very nice together. In most cases something about his “old lady.” “My old lady has green eyes, as green as emeralds in the sea.” I’ll never forget that one.

So, anyway, when he came around. Rick was the song guy. He could get something “formal” going, like a real song with actual structure that everyone could more or less play together on—rather than each of us just showing off the licks we knew in endless jams. But, after a few drinks, even those pointless jams got very interesting.

Merle Travis

Merle Travis

Lee had a very unique guitar style. He wasn’t a good player at all. And he was rather shy as a performer. But he had a distinctive manner of playing that I had never heard before, nor have I since. I would say that it had its roots in Travis Picking (think “Wildwood Flower”), or whatever style it was before Merle Travis popularized it—a certain bluegrass feel—with vague, Arkansasian overtones.

Allen says the music Lee played sounded like Hank Williams retreads. I don’t remember it that way at all. Whatever Lee was up to, his guitar playing was very unique and he probably employed the same technique that Hank Williams and Merle Travis heard and imitated when they began to create their own music. It preceded them. It was an old, rural style that probably doesn’t even exist anymore. I remember his music fondly. Or, perhaps more accurately: I remember being quite fond of Lee’s music.

Eventually, the cones would actually dry and we would have to go back to work. I don’t even slightly recall what my tasks were at that point in the procedure. It’s all a sloshy, dim blue memory. I faintly recall the guys from below sweeping the seeds down the chute with wide push brooms (or maybe that was us from the top). But before that could happen, all the de-seeded cones needed to be dumped from the screens into bags that would eventually go to the bark dust facility, wherever that was. And the trays needed to be collected and placed back on the hand truck up at the top of the shaft. I have no idea how that happened.

wreckThe job at the fir cone dryer didn’t last long—maybe six months. I remember my last night there Bucky didn’t show up. Bucky never didn’t show up. He was always there. He was the most paycheck-motivated character I’ve ever known. But the night before he had tried to drive back home drunk from Salem and he got in a wreck out on Highway 22 near Rickreal. The other driver was killed and Bucky ended up doing seven years in prison for vehicular manslaughter.

When spring came, Allen took off to go live with Juanita in Monmouth. Sally and I moved out of the house on 10th about ten blocks east to the cool, old two-story house on the corner of Clay and Hayter. Tom and Terri moved in to the lower half of the dwelling and it wasn’t long after that Tom and I got jobs doing construction with Mike (yes, a different Mike). Those Days of the Golden Homes were a story unto themselves.

 

********************************************************************************************************************

 

Well, the past year has been full of chaos and turmoil and I’m hoping for things to settle for a while so I can get some work done. I re-edited Unreal Gods last winter and took out three chapters. So now it’s under 600 pages, at least. I think I’m pretty much the only one to read the new version. I think three people (including me) have read the original. The hell with trying to get editors to read the damn thing, I can’t even get my friends to read it. Which brings us to our next installment of biblical haiku.

 

The Bible VII

Matthew, Luke and Mark

Had an argument with John

The pissed apostle.

 

I Found A Rock

Preparing to mow the lawn last Saturday, I parked the car out in the street in front of the house. Our street hasn’t been re-paved in at least forty years and we have no sidewalks or gutters, so water tends to run down the steep hill above us in well-defined rivulets off to the side of the street. In the summer I like to park in those channels, as they are off the street, but not part of the yard.

Exposed aggregate,regular view.

There is a lot of gravel in that section of the street, most if it washed down the long hill, a slow migratory sluice. The gravel in front of our house has been compacted by car to the extent that it mostly resembles exposed-aggregate concrete. Pretty solid stuff.

That particular day I parked the car with great care, methodically maneuvering close in next to our grass, while getting as far out of the street as humanly achievable—back and forth several times, eventually placing it in precisely the prescribed position.

Exposed aggregate, close-up

I exited the car and moved toward the back, I’m not certain why. Looking down as I reached the rear bumper, my eye caught sight of a flat rock.  Not that big, it was perhaps an inch and a half in length and maybe three quarters of an inch wide. Black (well, in direct sunlight, a very dark olive green with a faint golden sheen). Though flat, it stood out from the other tire-polished stones. It was smoother, with a different luster. Something attracted me to it.

Flat side

It’s not like I keep a lot of rocks, but I occasionally keep rocks I’m attracted to. Don’t get me started. It’s an element of my extended OCD. The rock in question appeared to be a keeper. The perfect flatness of its exposed surface was quite appealing. I picked it up and headed into the house.

Shaped like Nevada

Upon closer inspection, it soon became apparent that this was no ordinary rock. For one thing, it gave off some sort of benign vibe. Nothing intense, just a mild cosmic warmth. The rock was vaguely shaped like the state of Nevada—if there is any sort of significance to be found in that fact. The surface opposite the flat side is contoured, as are the edges.

To look at it, the rock appears to be nothing special, rather ordinary, but for the antique gloss of its velvety patina. However things change when you hold it in your hand. It takes a while, sorting it slowly between your fingers, to find the proper alignment (there are actually several). But eventually a certain celestial conformity takes place, as one cradles the mysterious object. Its pleasing curves and satisfying roundness perfectly tapered. It’s a stone that demands to be rubbed.

That’s it! It’s a worry stone. But not like any other I’ve ever seen. If you google the term you find a real array of various pieces. All created with a similar intent and purpose, but perhaps, for the Irish wishing stone. Although, who is to say what is to come from any sort of talisman upon which one places a great deal of concentration and energy?

Worry stones

From what I gleaned in my scant research trying to figure out the whole worry stone game, it became readily apparent that the objets have been with humankind for quite some time. Only slightly less older than dirt, I’d say. However this does open for us an important philosophical question. Which came first, the dirt or the rock?

The Argo by Lorenzo Costa

It’s been said that the ancient Greeks kicked off the craze—most likely because their advanced culture was more worrisome than most and they had a lot of free time. The first worry stones are purported to have been smooth sea rocks. Given their seafaring ways (see the Odyssey and Jason and the Argonauts) it’s easy enough to understand that they might have seen an alluring sea rock or two in their time. I mean, check out Jason’s run-in with the Symplegades. But a smooth river rock would probably do you just as well in a pinch.

Now available at a worry store near you

These days, judging by what one is likely to find online, most worry stones are pretty simple affairs: oval-shaped, semi-precious gemstones polished to a glassy sheen, with an indentation in the center. Most of them look like stone re-workings of a half-sucked Original Werthers hard toffee.

Irish wishin’ stone

There are variations. An Irish wishing stone appears to resemble more an outright rock than the other samples, most likely requiring some sincere effortful wishing in order to erode and abrade the hollow to conform to the shape of the thumb and fingers.

Cunningly contrived contours, oh my!

T. (for Tuesday) Lobsang Rampa (oh, we’re not going to get into him right now: http://www.skepdic.com/rampa.html) referred to them as TouchStones ™ claiming— “In far off China, in Tibet, in the holy temples of India, and in the great temples of the Incas, the Aztecs, and the Mayas, priests laboriously shaped stones by hand, stones whose cunningly contrived contours (?) comforted the human brain, and by flooding that organ with comfort and pleasant tactile sensations calmed the whole of the human mechanism.”

Maybe a tad grandiose, but I think what the good plumber monk was referring to was that the things are damn good stress relievers. That seems to be the consensus among all the hierachies of worry stone lovers and aficionados in the Wiccan and pagan communities as well. So the upshot here is that the rocks are fully sanctioned in all the corners of the new age universe—if, indeed, it is possible for the universe to contain corners.

Rounded smooth

While adhering to all ordained worry stone standards, the one I found is far superior to all other examples I could uncover. For one thing, not just the thumb groove but all edges on mine are perfectly rounded—all surfaces maintaining a sublime camber. Rather than by machine, it is obvious that the soothing curves and arcs were all worked by human digits over time. Over a long time. A lot of energy went into the shaping of my stone.

Nagging questions remain: How the hell did the rock get out there in front of the house in the first place? And how long was it lying out there before I discovered it? How does the possessor of one lose a worry stone? If you had it in your hand and were to drop it, you’d certainly pick it up. Was the person standing in front of our house when he inexplicably decided to empty his pockets or try to fish some change from his pocket. Or what? And what was he doing standing in front of our house anyway?

Native American relics and artifacts

We live at the very end of a dead-end street at the bottom of a very steep hill. We don’t receive a lot of passersby. So then, perhaps erosion unearthed the relic from decades of quiet slumber. It bears the quality of a Native American arrowhead or some other such artifact. My imagination prefers this theory. The stone feels old (well, of course it’s old, it’s a rock, fer crissakes!). It feels as if the human energy it stores is old—antique, from another time, long ago.

But some residual guilt persists. I’m not sure what I should do with the thing. Is it wrong to keep a found worry stone?  And what are the ramifications? Will it confuse the stone if I were to worry on it too? I don’t know the rules on such things. Perhaps it deserves a proper re-burial? I don’t know what protocol is in these situations.

I suppose I could go door to door around the neighborhood to see if anyone lost a valuable, semi-precious “object.” Make the possible owner describe the item in specific detail. The other option is to put an ad in Craig’s List or something. That seems like it might be casting too big a net, given our home’s somewhat remote locale.

Nested comfortably between distal interphalageal crease and palmar digital crease

Whatever the case, something needs to happen soon, as I am beginning to become attached to the stone. There is great pleasure in stroking its smooth coolness. The notch on the left edge perfectly fits the distal interphalangeal crease on my right index finger. The slight hollow on the right edge of the stone nestles against the palmar digital crease as if carved specifically for my grip.

But there is no right or wrong way to hold it. Cradle it in either hand, slab side up, or contoured. However it may be held, the special stone finds folds among the fingers and quickly comfortably conforms. See? I’m already developing a fetish for the thing. Why do I feel like this is a mystery that will never be solved?

**********************************************************************************

Novel Publishing Update:

I recently received my twentieth rejection letter from a reputable literary agent for Unreal Gods. I feel like a salmon swimming upstream against the current. I have revised the book, cutting four early chapters. (which I’m not even sure is such a good idea)- but I’m trying to make submissions of the first three chapters or one hundred pages move faster (I’m not sure that is a good idea either). Honestly, writing biblical haiku is easier.

The Bible VI

How Leviticus

Came by such strange ideas

Heaven only knows

A Lesson in Class

My girlfriend, Sigone (Significant One), was fired from her job the other day. It was a 21st century job: part time, contracted, no benefits, no taxes withheld. The pioneering, “do it yourself, because we don’t care,” entrepreneurial paradigm so keenly prevalent in our brave new workaday world. This isn’t your parents’ US of A, folks. They had jobs and unions and benefits and retirement packages. We have tasks. Every man for himself.

Sigone working from home.

Hers was one of those new-era work-from-home, writing positions of which you see an abundance posted on Craig’s List and elsewhere. It’s all about SEO (Search Engine Optimization). Most of these outfits pay you, like, two bucks to write three hundred words about hair salons in Durham, North Carolina, or whatever. Really innocuous. I don’t know who performs those tasks, but it ain’t anyone in this household.

Sigone’s assignments were a little more sophisticated than that. She worked for an organization that produced “biographies” for professional types–all eager to come in at the top or at least on the first page of a Google or Bing search, with the sort of content that they can tightly control.

The clients came from all walks of life. Some were merely trying to increase their visibility in the marketplace. Others were attempting to outrun certain notorious internet entries, by loading five or six different bios (from “separate” sources, of course) to crowd out the offending motes and beams onto page two of the search.

How the editor sees herself.

Since signing on last October, Sigone had written several hundred of those bios. The company for which she was working have editors (forty or so apparently) who routinely check all bios for grammar, spelling and content. They are especially sensitive to “plagarism.” By today’s definition of plagiarism, it is quite unlikely that the Bible ever would have taken shape. But that’s a horse of a different blog post.

The realm is so specialized that outfits like the one she wrote for employ sophisticated software that detect not only outright unattributed copying, but also grey-areas such as paraphrasing or rewriting. I don’t know how a term paper gets drafted anymore.

Our heroine.

As to what transgression got her fired? We’re still trying to piece that together. She had written a bio about an architect whose professional credo drifted into the neighborhood of Ayn Rand’s John Galt–relentlessly committed to his architectural principles and ideals. Sigone’s subject employed very technical terms in the information he provided.

Hearth and home.

He was all about chimneys and fireplaces, hearth and home, or some such. Go ahead. Thesaurus me that. Chimney. Hearth. To make things worse John Galt donated technical bon mots–yer fascias and chimney pots.

Let’s see. What’s another word for this thing?

Corbelling. That’s a good one. What’s another word for corbelling? Oh, don’t go there. You don’t even want to know what a thicket that is! These words are the resultant distilled crystalizations of years of tribes of architects wandering in the verbal desert attempting to give name to undefinable concepts. Fascia. Corbelling. Cornice. Amen.

Kat

Kat

Now, Sigone’s only previous run-in with an editor in all the time she had contributed biographies was with a woman named Kat. She accused Sigone of plagiarism. It should be pointed out that Sigone has impressive credentials of her own. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa in Religious Studies from the University of Washington. She attended Oxford. She holds masters degrees from Northwestern University in History and Creative Writing.

It would seem that if she were to have exhibited any sort of propensity for kyping the work of others it probably would have been discovered before her entry into the oh-so demanding world of  biographies designed to increase Search Engine Optimization. Good lord! How much is there to say about most of these people in the first place?

Anyway, it just so happened that Kat was patrolling the plagiarism front that day, diligently calling out all the little word thieves out there in her temporary domain. She sent back Sigone’s bio for corrections with offending passages shaded in yellow. Rather than to quibble, Sigone merely deleted the offending passages, thus ending any conflict. But hearth and corbelling and fascias remained.

How the contractor sees the editor.

The next thing Sigone knew, she had been terminated. Apparently Kat felt compelled to report to management whatever gross violation she had detected. Sigone had stolen copy. Beyond a shadow of a doubt. Hearth. Corbelling. Fascias.

And Sigone was gone. She wrote an impassioned plea to management that her job was very important to her, vital financially, and she asked for another chance. She did not receive the courtesy of a reply.

Corporations are people too, Captain Willard

It’s internet work. All employer/employee business is conducted online. It makes it easy to be impersonal, one would suppose. An email and you’re hired. An email and you’re fired. Clean as a snail crawling along the edge of a straight razor. No responsibility toward any sort of human exchange. It’s all business, you see. Corporations are people too, my friend. But they’re not very good at interpersonal relations. There’s no profit in caring.

Yes,sir. Corporations are people too. Can I get you anything, Mister Koch?

Corporations may be people, but that doesn’t make them persons. And, in the end, the people who are persons end up being consumed body and soul by corporations that are merely people, my friend. No moral accountability, our accountant handles all of that. But, hey–we’re the job creators.

And it’s so convenient  for purported human beings to hide behind the corporate veil of anonymity, affording them the luxury to freely express themselves without fear of discovery of the little man (or woman) cringing just on the other side of that curtain.

Excuse me. Uh. Help?

This is the climate that many if not most of us must endure in order to remain employed. Cynical? You bet. Cowardly? Surely. Just do as you’re told, take what you’re given, and keep your mouth shut. Don’t rock the boat. And don’t expect anything from your employer. They don’t care what happens to you.

Oh, you think I’m leaning a little hard on the vitriol? Let’s see. How can I tell this tale? The very few of you who read my blog know that a few months back I wrote a piece about the shameful joy I felt upon hearing that my former employer was experiencing financial problems. Just scroll down a post or two and you can read the rest. “20 Years of Schoolin’…”

I had my fun with Small Egg Roll and that was pretty much the end of it for me. From everyone I spoke to, I’d struck a blow for the little guy; pip-pip, hip-hip and all that. But, because of my Luddite-ness (also explicated in greater detail somewhere below this entry), my Luddity, if you will, I was not aware that another chapter was unfolding.

Riff McWingo

Yeah, I’d heard about the post-blog email Brendan had received from Riff McWingo telling him that he was dead to Small Egg Roll for spreading the word about the corporation’s financial misfortunes. Brendan was, of course, crushed. It would have been more crushing for him but for the fact that he no longer worked there. I think they were dead to him before he was dead to them.

No, what I didn’t know was that I had received an email of my own. A comment on that particular blog post had appeared. Buko, my web administrator, found it. I never would have. I don’t even know where to look for comments on my website. That’s still a long way away in my realm.

How can I put this?

But I received a comment from one “Superchick 474″ regarding my blistering Small Egg Roll blog. It wasn’t a very nice comment. Downright hateful. Buko didn’t even want to tell me about it. I reminded him that I had been a music “critic” in Portland for over thirty years. I’ve heard it all. Really. Even this:

Ahh, Scrooge McOldAsFuck, I see you’re whining as always. Haven’t you died yet? How your pathetic excuse of a heart and cynical outlook haven’t killed you yet, I have no idea.

The letters I get!

My guess is that you were let go for your continuously shitty attitude and inability to get things done. It is true that if you don’t like your job, someone else will. Nothing is more toxic than a shitty attitude and you still seem to have a copious amount of that.

When the good Lord does take your life, and hopefully soon, I can only hope that a homeless man with AIDS pisses on your grave to give you a taste of all the venom that you spread.

Rest in peace, Old Balls.

Well that was bracing! Honestly, and I may be biased here, but that seemed rather spleeny and mean-spirited, don’t you think? I didn’t wish any misfortune on Small Egg Roll in my blog. I’m quite aware they can bring that on themselves with their own dark karma without my help. Schadenfreude? Well, yes, maybe.

And schadenfreude, while certainly not an admirable sentiment, seems a damn sight better than expressing disappointment over the fact that someone has yet to undergo greatly anticipated hardship (death). That seems downright nasty, though, in this instance, not totally unanticipated.

L’amé McWingo

The prevailing thinking among members of the Wasted Talent Pool is that this piece of work came from the desk of daddy’s little nepot, L’amé (like the shiny shiny fabric) McWingo. It is certain that it came from inside the walls of Small Egg Roll, as Brendan and I and several Talent Poolers recognized the IP address. Buko was able to confirm this fact, tracking the address back to its source.

Whether or not she was sharing the corporate (family) sentiments, I cannot say. Nor is it clear if she was acting in an emissarial capacity for the firm. I mean, lesser men might read all of this as a veiled threat. Without doubt not a wish for well!

And it’s so poorly written. Good Lord, here’s your chance to really smoke it to me, to really tell me off, put me in my place, and that’s the best you could do? What sort of college education did your dad finance anyway? You didn’t even say “bitch slap.” Cranks always say “bitch slap” to/about me. I don’t know why.

McOld as wha’?

The ironies begin with the salutation: Ahh, Scrooge McOldAsFuck. What thuh?  I worked for notorious tightwads and their ambassador is referring to ME as McScrooge (the rich grandfather in Donald Duck comics)? Oh, that’s perfect! It was I withholding wealth from the corporate maw. How dare I? It was all my fault. Coulda called me Mister Selfish and just cut to the chase.

It’s a textbook example of deflection: the patently Republican ploy of blaming one’s adversary for precisely the trespasses for which they themselves are culpable.

I guess to a recent college graduate, working for her dad, I would seem old as fuck. Apparently the company sanctioned this assessment–although I’d never heard anything of the sort while I worked there. I’m not sure how to take this pronouncement, as heretofore I had not yet thought of myself as old, let alone “old as fuck” (which, according to Wikipedia, is pretty fuckin’ old)

And then the whole Mc thing. In my blog I called her family McWingo and now she’s calling me McOldAsFuck. I think this shows an appalling lack of originality. Probably a Business Admin major. Whining as always. I bitch. I complain. I object. I question. I beg to differ. But I don’t whine. Not particularly well thought out, I’d say.

Haven’t you died yet? How your pathetic excuse of a heart and cynical outlook haven’t killed you yet, I have no idea.

Many have wondered if this line was some sort of veiled threat. She seems awfully attached to the idea of something killing me. It sounds malicious. Disappointed. Like, “Aren’t you dead yet? Why aren’t you dead yet?” What does she know and when did she know it? As if she can’t figure out why the poisoning hasn’t taken effect yet.

Dad.

Why, L’amé? It’s because my father was Rasputin and I know how to hold my poison. That’s why. But, I will admit to being cynical. Fifteen years at Small Egg Roll would make a cynic of a saint. Although saints work at a better pay scale, I’m told. Cynics have to take what they can get. Obviously.

Saint George the Dragonslayer

I have a rockin’ patron saint, but not a patron cynic. Although if I were to have a patron cynic, it would be Saint George Carlin, the Dragonslayer.

My guess is that you were let go for your continuously shitty attitude and inability to get things done.

Where would you like me to put this?

“Let go.” That sounds so diplomatic. “Set free” would have been nice. “Allowed to leave.” Shitty attitude and inability to get things done doesn’t ring quite true somehow. You’d think the braintrust would have sussed that out within the prior fifteen years of my employ–over the duration of which I managed to dump into their coffers 30-plus million dollars in sales lucre, while the company’s fortunes grew sextupally. Just sayin’. The empire’s attitude got shitty long before mine did. My wealth sure as hell didn’t grow sextupally.

It is true that if you don’t like your job, someone else will.

Atlas preparing to shrug.

Well, in this case, that isn’t altogether true–since my accounts were given to the other members of the sales-staff to quell their rampant disapproval for having their commissions slashed in half (Field General Guppy J. Lapdog, VP of Sales, told us we’d “come out ahead” with the new configuration–yeah, right. The “royal” we). So, no one likes my old job. There is none to like. Small Egg Roll “discontinued” my department. Whatever that’s supposed to mean.

When the good Lord does take your life, and hopefully soon, I can only hope that a homeless man with AIDS pisses on your grave to give you a taste of all the venom that you spread.

This is God speaking.

Now, this is so full of confused thinking it’s difficult to fully ravel. But the sentiments are again clearly Republican in nature. In their world, the “good lord” takes the lives of the people they don’t like. And hopefully soon. There you go, brevity is next to godliness–the good lord apparently receiving directives from L’amé via the red phone hotline.

I can only hope that a homeless man with AIDS pisses on your grave to give you a taste of all the venom that you spread.

Here’s the deal. After I’m dead, I’m hardly likely to “taste” any venom at all. But it’s really not within my control nor of any concern to me who pisses venom on my grave, as there will be none upon which to piss: after my cremation. My first wish was to have my carcass left in the woods for the scavengers to devour, but apparently that’s not legal. Otherwise, I suppose it would be easier to just dump my corpse in front of Small Egg Roll and let the scavengers there do the job.

Venom pissing applicant.

And then, to drag a poor homeless man into this and to give him AIDS, no less–while he’s pissing venom on somebody’s grave (’cause it ain’t mine). Girl, you read too many graphic novels in school when you should have been studying and attending class. Or maybe it’s all that trashy Japanese video product you’re forced to promote for your corporate family overlords.

Rest in peace, Old Balls.

Old balls at rest.

Well, that’s a nice sentiment. When I have rested in my life, it has always been in great peace, owing to the fact that my conscience is relatively clear at this point in the procession of my days. I have been more generous than selfish, which is more than I can say for Small Egg Roll.

And how did you know my porn name is Old Balls? You’ve been peeking again!

Today Sigone came home from her volunteer position at a non-profit clinic, to which she devotes a couple of days a month. She does this because she loves the emotionally challenging work and she is extremely talented at it. It fulfills her. She remarked as to how everyone who works there seems happy and glad to be there. They’re all supportive of one another. They treat you with respect and act like they’re glad to be there and glad that you’re there with them.

Will Work For Justice

I thought about it for a second and I couldn’t recall any job I had like that–except being a musician, which no one considers a job anyway.  Musicians play music, they don’t work it. Okay. The good ones work it, but that’s a different blog.

Actually, thinking back, Riff McWingo did present me with a very gracious card of appreciation for all my efforts. That was back in 1998. From that point forward–for the subsequent thirteen years–it would seem I was no longer appreciated (word to the wise, L’amé).

A lot has changed since 1998 when Bill Clinton was president and life seemed okay. Life is not okay anymore. If it wasn’t okay for me alone, then I would be willing to deal with that. But it’s not okay for just about everyone I know and everyone they know.

AIDS venom of a homeless man on my hands!

As the prospect of corporate personhood grows, the state of humanity declines exponentially. What will life be like when corporations are the only acknowledged “people” and real humans are mere inconveniences to be dealt with like cows that need a morning milking?

Fortunately, according to some timetables, there will be a poor homeless man with AIDS pissing venom on someone’s (Peter Graves’?) grave that he thinks is mine, and I won’t have to worry about any of this. But lots of luck to the rest of you in your brave new world. May the corporation be with you, my friend.

 

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UPDATE:

Ever vigilant, duly diligent Mister Buko rightly noted that I had forgotten to include my regular installment of Biblical Haiku (copyright pending, all you crazy-assed editors out there).

The Bible V

If Revelations

Should end up turning out true,

Me and you are screwed.

 

 

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.