FORGOTTEN HEROES

I’ve been going through my notes from my drifter days, trying to figure out how to describe the sense I got at times that I was part of something bigger than I could conceive.

At that time nothing was going according to the script I had written for my own life, which was a sort of Horatio Alger tale of small poet who makes it big, becomes filthy rich, marries a beautiful blond, and lives happily ever after.  In actual fact I was unknown, destitute, and my romantic life made a train wreck look pretty. But, despite my apparent lack of success, I felt I had an importance all out of proportion to what anyone could see. Nor was it merely me who had this importance. You also were important. You too would, if you only knew how important you were, be able to swell your chest in an attitude of grandiose magnificence.

The best way I can think to describe what I glimpsed would be to contemplate a small ball bearing in the palm of your hand. While a ball bearing might seem like an insignificant bead, without it mighty machinery can grind to smoldering ruins.

We each have an important part to play in the scheme of things, and it is sheer foolishness to think one is raised at all by becoming a so-called “star”.  Many in Hollywood think, in their vanity, that they are more important than humble bumpkins, but in actual fact the part they play is evil. They represent vanity, a tool of Ignorance, (or “Maya”, or “Satan”.) They currently like to plaster their Maserati-bumpers with “Resist!”, as if their political vanity proclaims they represent Truth,  when in fact it proclaims they are vain. A truer “resistance” resists the seductions of fame and fashion and fad and popularity, and accepts humble positions, and is willing to be a bumpkin and be called “a deplorable”, while simply performing the work of a ball bearing, which is to “do your job”, which is to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your Lord”.

I had a hard time being humble at that time, for two reasons. The first was that, to be honest, I very much wanted to be seduced by fame and fashion and fad and popularity, and be absurdly wealthy, and drive a Maserati, and walk with a buxom babe at either elbow.  As a poet, I figured I’d die young, but at times it seemed to me better to die of a cocaine overdose, than of starvation. But, as I said earlier, my life was not unfolding according to my script. (Thank God.)

The second reason I found it hard to be humble was that, when I glimpsed the part mere bumpkins played in the scheme of things, I wanted to screech from the rooftops how divine and exalted they were. They were the true heroes, the Atlas holding up the world on their shoulders. They were the ones who were the good guys, as Hollywood stars played the role of the bad guys. What was wrong with everyone? Was humanity blind?

I felt I had important news to share with my fellow man, concerning how exalted bumpkins were and how stupid Hollywood was. Of course, this news is deemed politically incorrect by Hollywood Agents, and also Gatekeeper Publishers, and in fact if you want to get ahead in Hollywood it is likely unwise to call Hollywood evil, which is probably part of the reason I wound up destitute in a desert campground.

I am fairly certain I deserved the destitution I ended up with. But, if I say that, then I also must have deserved the people who showed up at that campground, and made my life a pleasure. I found myself within inexplicably joyous periods of time where I actually raised my eyes to the sky and thanked God. Such times were like the kindness of spring after a hard winter, or the kindness of healing after a hangover you know you darn well deserve. I felt I hadn’t done half as much as it would take, to earn myself such compassion, but I couldn’t stop the dawn from ending my night. Often the dawn was the arrival of inconsequential fellow-Americans, at an obscure campground.

One fellow had worked hard and kept a steady job for years, as I had spent my years avoiding steady work and being a poet. He was a quarter century older than I, and had scraped together enough for a modest retirement, whereas I had slim prospects of scraping together enough to feed myself more than rice and beans the following day. You might think we were opposites, but we both liked salt-water fishing, and I shared a couple beers from a cheap six-pack I’d bought with the $20.00 I’d made with that day’s spot-labor, and we enjoyed an evening by a campfire at an altitude of 7000 feet, talking about the ocean far away.  The next day he headed off in his camper to Mexico, to fish off Baja California, as I headed off to see if I could make enough with day-labor to buy chicken wings.

Around two weeks later the same fellow returned from Baja California, and sought me out.  I was late returning to the campground that night, after a discouraging day when I didn’t make enough to buy chicken wings. I was expecting to prepare a dinner of rice and beans, but instead enjoyed all sorts of Baja California fish the fellow had smoked and brought back.  We had a fish-fry party, with other campers joining and contributing both food and liquor. It was not what I expected, after a discouraging day.

The next day all my new friends left, which is to be expected, when you befriend people at a campground. Those friendships reminded me of hitchhiking nearly twenty years earlier. You meet people, have amazing conversations, and never see them again.

But one old fellow did want to see me again. I’m not sure why. Maybe something about the amazing conversation of the night before convinced him to hang around the campground an extra day. I know he didn’t ask me permission.

Meanwhile I was having a far better day seeking spot-labor. Minimum wage back then was stuck at $3.35/hour, and a good day was to work 8 hours and return to the campground with $26.80 (rent was $25.00/week), but on this day I’d made $5.00/hour and worked ten hours, and had a whopping $50.00.  I not only paid the next week’s rent, and not only had money to buy some food and do my clothes at the campground laundromat, but also had extra money for cigarettes, coffee and beer. I was looking forward to a quiet time writing at my picnic table all alone. The last thing I wanted to see was a grizzled old man sitting at my table, as I came puttering up to my pup tent in my tiny, battered, brown, 1974 Toyota Corolla. But what could I do? One must be a good host.

Dinner that night was a chowder made from smoked fish from Baja California, which was a pretty classy meal, for a bum in a New Mexico campground. I had a huge box of powdered milk for my coffee, and several bags of free smoked fish which wouldn’t rot in the heat, so all I needed for a chowder was a couple onions and potatoes, which I’d bought on my way home to the campground.  My fuel was half-burned logs I scrounged from other camper’s hearths after they left in the morning. My kitchen held a coffee pot, a pan, and a kettle, and my utensils were a spatula, a large spoon, and a jackknife.  The desert sky was brilliant blue, and the crimson setting sun was lighting up the towering, orange-sandstone bluffs surrounding the campground. Life seemed good to me, and I offered my guest a beer. He offered me some whisky, which I gestured for him to dump into my coffee. Life was seeming even better.

My guest was a retired aeronautical engineer. At first he struck me as a bit boring, seeming like a person who had worked for years at drafting tables with slide-rules and inky fingers, but as I questioned him I soon understood he’d seen the start of the Cold War, which was a war without front lines, fought largely behind the scenes.

I told him a few tales about a nearby cavalry post called Fort Wingate. After soldiers stopped galloping about on splendid horses it had become an ammunition dump in World War Two, and for a brief time after the war people hadn’t guarded it very well, because people thought the Russians were our allies, and all wars were over and done with, and there was no need to guard ammunition dumps any more. Rumor had it that local Navajo and Ranchers had wound up with bazookas, though I’d never seen one. Then it turned out Stalin didn’t want to be friends, and the ammunition dump was guarded more carefully.

The old man laughed, and told me he’d known a few ranchers who “liberated” surprising weapons from army-surplus stockpiles after the war, including a tank. We talked a while about how men like to blow stuff up, and about tremendous booms heard in the desert on July the Fourth. As the man rambled on about his past I studied his face in the firelight, and decided he didn’t look entirely like a draftsman; his complexion had rancher-wrinkles gifted by wind and sun.

He became more interesting to me the more he talked. Partly this was due to the whisky, but also I just have a habit of being nosy. I mind my own business if other people mind theirs, but if I am stuck with someone I figure I might as well get to know them.  Few people are actually as dull as they appear. Even though 99% of life may be dull, God lets few of us off Scot free, and most have been through trials and troubles. Even dull people don’t mind telling you about the adventure of surviving, if you know how to ask.

This particular fellow kept veering away from the subject of post-war aeronautical engineering, and when I pointed out that he was avoiding the subject (whisky allows such frankness) he replied some of what he’d done was still classified.  I was amazed technology from 1946 was still secret, and he simply shrugged. Then I became a pest, asking if he could at least tell me what general subject was still secret, without leaking the actual details.

He looked at me thoughtfully, and then I was surprised to see anger creep into his expression, and he said, “I suppose I can, considering the asshole president was such a big blabbermouth.”

I agreed (being a democrat at that time) that President Reagan was an asshole, and the fellow replied “I was referring to President Carter.” Things were awkward for a bit, and I endured a bit of a lecture about my naivete, but the fellow was gracious in a gruff way, and forgave me for being liberal, leaving me with some version of the John Adams quip to Thomas Jefferson, “A boy of 15 who is not a democrat is good for nothing, and he is no better who is a democrat at 20.” (Churchill read Jefferson’s account, and revised it.)

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The old engineer was of the opinion President Carter had no brain, for he had publicly bragged our air force had a bomber which radar couldn’t see, at a time when the information was top secret. He was referring to the “stealth bomber”.

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The old engineer told me there are all sorts of difficulties with the design of “flying wings”, which were originally designed because they could fly farther than conventional bombers due to increased “lift.”  They could fly for 10,000 miles.

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Despite all the efforts to keep the flying wing secret, there were spies in the desert, reporting to Stalin, who was able to tell President Truman he knew of the first explosion of the first atomic bomb on July 16, 1945 at the Potsdam conference only a few days later.

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Therefore Truman was aware Stalin likely knew about the crash of the flying-wing (jet version) on June 5, 1948. This may explain why Truman had a different flying wing roar over the White House not far above the rooftops in mid-February 1949. He not only wanted to see it himself; he wanted the Russians to see it from their embassy.

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It is typical of the Cold War that Truman would want Stalin to see the success without leaking the secret of the troubles. This might get Russia working on its own version without knowing of the problems they’d run into, (which eventually led to the abandonment of the flying wing).  In a sense it would send the Russians off onto a wild goose chase, and waste a lot of money. It was vast military expenditures that eventually led to the Soviet Union’s downfall;  In the end the Cold War was won by battling pocketbooks, like old ladies fighting at a sale.

Washington D.C. was a swamp back then, just as it is now, and the designer of the flying wing, Jack Northrop, stated a reason for the failure of his project was that the Secretary of the Air Force, Stuart Symington, was in cahoots with Northrup’s competitor Conair. (When the Democrats lost power Symington became president of Conair.) (There may have even been industrial sabotage involved, as one flying wing nearly crashed because someone “forgot to change the oil.”)

Jack Northrop was bitterly disappointed when his pet project lost the necessary funding from Washington, but at the very end of his life in 1980, in a wheelchair and unable to speak, he was taken to see a top-secret Stealth Bomber. After seeing the reincarnation of his pet project, he reportedly scribbled onto a pad of paper, “Now I know why God has kept me alive the past 35 years.”

The old aeronautical engineer I talked with in 1985 didn’t go into any detail about the “secrets” discovered by the early flying wings, which were utilized in the stealth bomber. I suspect the most important one was discovered by sheer accident. While the emphasis was on flying wings being able to stay aloft longer than conventional aircraft, it was noted that they presented a very small “cross section” on the radar screen.

What impressed the engineer most was the courage of the test pilots. Both Forbes and Edwards air force bases were named after test pilots who died in the crash of the flying wing in 1948. They were heroes, for they gathered the information that led to later successes, at the price of their lives.

At this point the old man’s face became very sad in the firelight, as he recalled the death of a test pilot he knew. The old man may have been leaking a secret, for I cannot find any record of the crash he recollected. It involved a much smaller flying wing, more of a fighter than a bomber. During a test flight it flipped upside down, and then the pilot could not get it to flip right side up again. The entire time he strove to right the air-craft he spoke in a calm voice, explaining what he was attempting and how the aircraft was responding, and listening to the suggestions of the engineers on the ground. As the aircraft ran out of fuel he came gliding in upside down, landing with the cockpit downwards, which of course killed him. His death was instantaneous, but the engineer was still in pain forty years later.

I suppose that exploring new frontiers always involves the deaths of pioneers, who show us the dangers, and save many lives through the loss of their own. We now take air travel in jets for granted, oblivious of the forgotten heroes who made such luxury possible. Meanwhile the big-shots in swamps rattle sabers at each other, and thump their gorilla chests with nuclear tests, and fight with pocketbooks like little old ladies.

When I reflect, I think the big are far smaller than they imagine, while the small are far bigger than they dream.

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NOT LOCAL —Deluge Camping—

My life is so tragic that I used to schedule two hours first thing every morning to cry my eyes out, but that got old after a while, so I decided to stop hanging around with poets. It was more fun to look back and laugh. So I suppose that makes me a humorist.

One tragic thing about my youth was that my Mom didn’t like camping. My Dad did a foolish thing, which was to take her camping on their honeymoon. He thought he might open her eyes to the beauty of nature. It poured. Years later, when he was a little wiser, he took her to the Caribbean. She stepped on a poisonous sea-urchin. Come to think of it, maybe Nature didn’t like my mother. When my Dad took her out mackerel-jigging she caught a sea-gull. It squawked and flapped about her face at the end of a hand-line, and she indignantly concluded only fools found joy in mackerel fishing. Nor did she like anyone finding joy in her discomfiture, but Dad did a foolish thing, which was to laugh.

After the divorce I was very careful to avoid the topic of camping. I was a sort of barefoot, suburban Huckleberry Finn, illegally fishing and skinny-dipping in the water supply of Harvard professors, and was briefly arrested at age eleven, but the officer had compassion and didn’t tell Mom. I had many other wonderful adventure that I didn’t dare share with Mom (at least until a sort of statute of limitations had passed) for I had concluded there were two types of people in the world. There were those who didn’t like camping…

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…and those who did.

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Back in my days as a bachelor and bum I did a lot of camping, for a tent was cheaper than an apartment. In 1987 I camped from May 1 to October 23. This presented me with a bit of a dilemma, for if I didn’t write my Mom she’d worry, (and I usually couldn’t afford a phone call.) The letters I then produced were masterpieces in the fine art of censorship. Every day camping was a sunny day, and rain was never mentioned.

After I surprised everyone by marrying and settling down, I got a surprise of my own, for it turned out my wife’s mother did like camping. I didn’t know that was legal for Moms to do, but she’s gone right ahead and done it.

As a young mother of five with a hot home, too poor to afford a summer house, she had moved to a campground by a lake each summer, perhaps to escape the heat or perhaps to escape vacuuming the house. Her husband would commute to work from the campground, and the kids rode their bicycles about and fished and swam to their hearts content. They don’t seem to remember any rain. The mother didn’t know what she was starting. It became a yearly event.

This year the lady, in her eighties, sat back and happily regarded her daughter and three sons, their four spouses, ten grandchildren, four grandchildren-in-laws, two step-grandchildren, two step-grandchildren-in-laws, six great-grandchildren, and two step-great-grand children, and likely thought about the ones who couldn’t make it this year.

It rained, of course. It seems to rain every year, but we count on the rain, and one of the first things we do is stretch out tarps between trees. I am proud to state I was the one who started this great tradition in 1991, and as the years have passed it has become a sort of art, as we’ve learned by making all sorts of mistakes. A tarp can turn into a spinnaker in a strong wind, and snap ropes, and also a tarp also can turn into a massive udder if  it catches rain and sags. Now we have learned all sorts of remedies, one of the best of which is to get old, so you can sit back and watch others clamber about in trees.

Only once did I arise this year, as the wise old man,  to show them the trick of tying a rope to a hammer and tossing it up over a branch, so you can skip the climbing, (which I didn’t learn until I was pushing fifty and getting tired of bringing an aluminum extension ladder camping, and saw a friend who was lazy demonstrate the hammer trick).  This year no one had a hammer so they used a hatchet. It added risk to the enterprise.

In the end we were ready for the rain. Here’s my area:

and here’s the main gathering area:

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In the old days we only had tents, and looked down our noses at RV’s, but a son and brother-in-law have gotten soft, and I must admit I don’t mind a bit of softness myself, though I can’t afford a RV. We also only cooked over wood fires in the old days, and while we still do a bit of that (under the high part of the tarp), the younger folk haul in all sorts of smokers and newfangled propane gadgets. I don’t complain, when faced with a spread like this:

I’m not sure we could have done as well if the winds had been high. Around five years ago we gathered in the gusty deluge of a former tropical storm, and as I recall we put off the gorging until the next day, but this year the feast was prepared despite downpours. It was interesting to see the smaller girls incorporate the water coming off the tarp into their play.

My wife strongly believes that, to acclimatize grandchildren to camping, you need to break them in early.

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We’ve been camping in the rain so long, nearly thirty years now, that we’ve watched an entire generation go from being this small to being stronger and richer than we are. I like to just sit back and contemplate the passage of time, but did get up and take part in a game of whiffle-ball when the rain let up for a bit, and now rue my brief ambition.  Within hours I was walking funny. But the former boys are now strapping young men who don’t stiffen up so quickly, and who itch for challenges, such as jumping into rivers from high places and being carried downstream.

This river is the Ashoelot, a geologically interesting backwater that flows down a channel made by a glacial flood. Usually it is fairly shallow,  but all the rain had its waters rising.Camping 9 IMG_7106

 

When we first arrived my dog L.C. (short for “Lost Cause”), (Animal Rights Activists think I’m calling her “Elsie”), had a great time annoying herons and geese on the river, which was a little higher than usual.

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But the clear, tea-colored water had risen three feet and turned to coffee by the second day.

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By the third day it had risen three more feet and gone dark again, and had the spin-drift suds that sometimes indicate pollution, but can also be natural, in swampy rivers.  The campground owner said the water was as high as he’d ever seen it. Driftwood shifted, with its colonies of greenery and crimson blooms.

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The men were smart enough to know you can’t jump in at the usual place, if you are unsure if driftwood has moved in, so they sent my nine-year-old  grandson down to swim around and see if he could feel any branches with his toes. The cheerful, young, eager-to-please chump fellow checked out the entire area under the embankment, which usually is around twelve feet tall. He said it was all clear. Then they asked him if the water seemed colder, and he shrugged innocently and said, “Maybe a little.”

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I wish I could show you the video of whqat followed. You see six big brawny men dash to the edge of the bank and leap whooping out into the river, make a tremendous splash, and then their heads emerge and they all simultaneously register the fact the water is twenty degrees colder. Not so manly, all of a sudden. As they drifted downstream you could have heard the shrieking a mile away.  (I looked suspiciously at my grandson. He was smiling noncommittally.)

Despite the fact they had disgraced themselves, in terms of machismo, some of the women wanted pictures of the young men “for a calendar.”

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Himph! No one asked me if I’d pose for a calendar. And I tell you, I’ve taken on all four of those fellows and whupped them with one hand behind my back……twenty years ago.

As the evening came on I sat in the light of the campfire listening to the patter of the rain on the tarp overhead, and the deluge became a flood of memory. I listened to the murmurs of conversation, snatches of laughter, and strumming of a guitar and thought about what a fool I was thirty years ago, when I decided I had God’s plan for me all figured out. I was camping all alone in the New Mexico desert, and expected to be single all the days of my life.

In fact I managed to convince myself that being alone was likely for the best.  Spirituality is all about renouncing the things of the world, and it would be far easier to renounce everything if I didn’t have anything. Just as it is far easier to be a teetotaler if you have no booze, it would be easier to be celibate without a babe. My “bad karma” was actually “good karma”.

Not so fast. (Though it did happen with astonishing speed.) In fact, when I told a spiritual friend I had married a mother-of-three I didn’t try to explain it, beyond saying, “I don’t know what happened.” Karma is like that. Just when you think you have things figured out you learn you’re just a chip on a mighty river.

It is also a little amusing how “good karma” becomes “bad karma”. When my wife was clobbered by morning sickness and I had three kids to care for it occurred to me that “family values” might not be all that they were cut out to be. Not that I had any desire to camp alone again. But I understood the irony of the Springsteen “Hungry Heart” lyrics:

Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack
I went out for a ride and I never went back,

There are times when leaving all worldly possessions has a definite appeal.  The Australian poet Francis Brabazon  describes a man who came to Meher Baba and offered to lay all his worldly possessions at his feet, namely, a wife and six kids.

However when Jesus said, “Leave all and follow me”, he didn’t mean just your “bad karma”. All means all. To be true follower you have to give up your “good karma”. Yikes. That is not so easy, when the kids who seemed like “bad karma” grow up and delight you by being “good karma” in a campfire’s wavering glow.

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It is no easy thing to truly give all to God. We are all addicts. But it helps when you reflect on how bankrupt you are without the gifts you have received from God. (I’m not sure where atheists think their talents and “luck” comes from.) It helps even more to believe God is love, and even “bad karma” holds compassion, though it may be a blessing very deeply disguised.

As a cancer survivor I know even accursed cancer can be a blessing, for it makes every day a treasure. One lives praying the doctor doesn’t deliver the bad news, “it’s back”. It is as if you are looking  around for the last time. Habits people have, which once annoyed you, become strangely endearing.

It is oddly ambiguous that, when we think we have control of our lives, we are full of complaining, but when we lose control we experience an overwhelming gratitude. Perhaps that explains (to some) why “leave all and follow me” is not really loss, but gain.