I can never remember a summer as wet as the past summer was, in southern New Hampshire. I can remember wet spells, especially in springtime, but never such a persistence of damp and dour and dripping dismalness, during summer.
About a decade ago we had a record-setting, dark and drenching June, but it dried out in July. Other years have seen training, July gully-washer thunderstorms that caused local flash floods. And of course, dying tropical storms have given us amazing August and September rains and floods, (most notably Connie and Diane in 1955). However, all these events are mostly a matter of days, or at most of two or three weeks. This past summer made me sit up and take notice.
Not that the summer was “unprecedented”. Just because you yourself have never seen a thing happen before doesn’t mean it never happened. It was said (I think by President Truman) that, “The only thing new under the sun is the history you haven’t read.” If you look back through the records you will often see our forefathers endured worse.
However, just to argue with myself, I will also assert that every day is fresh and new. Each day differs from other days in a manner that makes each day have a unique fingerprint. Therefore, every day is in some way “Unprecedented”.
To truly be a great meteorologist one must on one hand study history, and on the other be aware that another word for “freshness and newness” is, “Chaos”. In fact, predicting weather is nearly as hard as predicting humanity. Meteorologists are nearly as inclined to forecast incorrectly as psychologists are.
The major difference is that when meteorologists forecast incorrectly, they cannot put the weather in jail for disobeying them. Psychologists, on the other hand, can institutionalize their clients for indicating that their pet therapy was and is and ever more will be total bunkum.
Politicians tend to be more like psychologists than like meteorologists. When Stalin was wrong, he was far more inclined to institutionalize his subjects than confess his own error. Blame is a wonderful thing, if you have the power to get away with it. When Stalin’s invasion of Finland was a debacle, it was wonderful (for Stalin) to be able to purge generals, as Stalin himself kept his status as “infallible”.
In actual fact, the only One worthy of being called “infallible” is God. Stalin made a mistake when he tried to replace the Almighty, and his end was tragic. To avoid such tragedy, it is far better to confess we do fail, which meteorologists are able to do. They have a thing or two to teach the rest of us about humbleness.
But they can’t claim credit, for the true teacher is a thing called “weather”. In New England some say, “If you don’t like the weather, wait a short while.” What this statement suggests is that weather can do what psychologists can’t. Weather can improve your mood, where psychologists at times charge you an absurd amount for an hour spent making you feel that you are insane. The sun breaking through the clouds charges you nothing, but can change your life by making you feel saner. In the case of Johnny Nash and the song, “I Can See Clearly Now”, the good mood prompted by sunshine sold a million copies, but the sunshine charged nothing.
If sunshine can elevate our mood, then rain can depress it, if the rain does more than end a drought. (No rain at all is not a good thing.) And here we notice something about the euphoria so wonderfully described by Johnny Nash’s hit song. The reason “seeing clearly” is such a good thing, and the reason “the rain is gone” and “the pain is gone” is because the “obstacles” are clearly seen. What this suggests is that there was an earlier time when “obstacles” were not so clearly seen. As the poet Longfellow put it, “Into each life some rain must fall.”
A quick perusal of Johnny Nash’s life does show a darker time followed by a brighter time: A recording studio he attempted to run in the United States collided with cutthroat competition and a certain unwillingness to invest in new music, so he declared bankruptcy, moved to Jamaica, where expenses were far lower and the Reggae-scene embraced new music, and there he found success and a “bright, bright, sunshiny day”, (and a million-seller).
In a sense Johnny Nash did what meteorologists do. He admitted he failed, when he declared bankruptcy, and without that admission he could not have moved on to his million-selling success.
This brings me around to the dismal topic of those who cannot admit their failure. I am referring to the so-called “Elite” who live in the so-called “Swamp” of Washington DC, and satellite swamps such as “Hollywood”.
What failure can they not admit? Chiefly, they cannot admit they are increasingly unpopular. They are addicted to fame, and lust for applause, but increasingly hear booing. (“F— Joe Biden!”) They need to see they might be doing something wrong, but instead dismiss their audience as idiots. Their increasing unpopularity in fact lost them the last two presidential election, but they used fraud to “win” the last one. This did not make them more popular. In like manner, many of their ideas are rejected by other highly intelligent thinkers, yet, by employing “cancel culture” and censoring differing ideas on platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, the Elite think they create the illusion everyone agrees with them.
This vain foolishness is painful to watch. It is as if a meteorologist predicted sunshine and it rained, and the meteorologist was so vain he walked about in the rain wearing sunglasses and saying, “Isn’t this sunshine wonderful?”
Or perhaps singing, “I can see clearly now. It’s pouring rain.”
Rather than embracing Truth, such people prefer ignorance. It hurts to see it. It is embarrassing. They are making such complete jackasses of themselves! Yet, in their ignorance, they actually believe they are “winning”. They believe they are “popular” even as they alienate. They are as ridiculous as a person who cheats at solitaire, for even in their alienated loneliness they puff out their chests and swagger about “winning”.
The loving thing to do with such people is to gently and kindly inform them of the Truth, but fifty years of sad experience informs me that such people are all too often incorrigible. They are too certain they are “winning” to see they are not. After fifty years I have witnessed many such people come to bad ends. I never wished they’d see such unhappy endings. But…they insisted.
If God allows it, I hope to someday write about the people I knew, and often loved, who came to bad ends. If my pen is able, the reader will see why such people were lovable. They dared do things most are too inhibited to do. However, because such daring involved being to some degree “outlaws” they ran up against the “Law”.
In some cases the “law” was silly rules, clung-to by an outdated status-quo, (and such “law” does not deserve a capital “L”), but in other cases the “Law” was the real deal, the Truth. There is a gigantic difference between standing up to outdated prudes and stick-in-the-muds, and standing up to Truth, (which some call “God”.) I would try to point out the huge differences, but largely my explanations failed. My daring friends considered me a prude and stick-in-the-mud for even suggesting they be reined back. Then, for example, they would die of AIDs. They found other ways to come to bad ends, as well. It was not what I liked to witness. (It seems a sort of definition of both ignorance and tragedy that the tragic hero sometimes looks for freedom by donning chains, (for example, addictions), and sometimes seeks life in the direction of death).
You might think that after fifty years my generation would wise up, but many never let go of their ignorance, and to see such gross ignorance seize power in my homeland in 2020 made the past summer dismal enough. We didn’t need a single rainy day. But sometimes the Creator seems to use weather as a sort of mood-music for His movie, and all summer we had wet weather befitting “The Swamp’s Coup”. Sometimes the wet blew in from the chilly Gulf of Maine, and sometimes it rolled up from the hot and humid south, but it was never truly dry.
How bad was it? Well, it snuck up on us, for at the start we were in a drought. Radar showed thunder pounding New York City, which had a very wet June, but that rain slipped south of us, at first. But it slowly made inroads north, until now the drought has retreated up to northern Maine. In a number of nearby communities, it has been the rainiest July-August-September on record, (with the records going back between 90 and 152 years). And where the record was not set, the rainfall “nearly” set a record.
Basically, summer sucked. My garden became a mire. My lush and green potatoes’ foliage produced rotted tubers down in their roots. I now know how the farmers felt in the Irish potato famine. You do the usual work, but get no crop.
I gained other insights. When the Medieval Warm Period gave way to the Little Ice Age some terrible famines afflicted Europe. Basically the fields which had been bountiful became mires under cold, excessive rainfall. I got a glimpse of this. I couldn’t till between the rows of my garden because my rototiller sank in the mire. The weeds rejoiced.
I am very thankful I am not dependent on my garden for food, for, as a survivalist, I would have starved if I only depended on my garden. I am thankful better farmers work elsewhere, and I can go to the market. But I am a little nervous because a few shelves at our market are empty. I have never seen that before. (It has something to do with the ignorant being in control in Washington, and disruptions in the “supply chain”).
However, as a survivalist, I have other sources of food besides my garden. The garden’s failure is like Johnny Nash’s bankruptcy. Failure is not a proof a million-seller doesn’t lie just ahead. So, midst all the rain, I looked about to see how nature was handling the wet.
One thing that loved the wet was fungus. Mushrooms were popping up all over the place. If the markets had been emptier, one likely could have feasted on mushrooms, if they knew their mushrooms. One might even have become fat. But you have to know your mushrooms. Some can kill you, and some can derange you, and some merely cause bellyaches and astounding flatulence. Others are loaded with protein, including some proteins which are rare and can help ill people deal with their ailments. But, (besides feasting on pasture mushrooms), I tended to ignore that particular bounty, provided by the amazing wet.
Other, less edible fungus did some odd things. Besides turning my potatoes to slime underground, they rotted some (but not all) of my tomato plants right at ground level. Just above that brown rot the green tomato stems produced masses of white roots in the rain, so I just dug a new hole and stuck the stem underground and the plant amazingly went on to produce tomatoes, (some of which rotted even as they reddened, covered with an odd, white mold.) But I did get some good ones and enjoyed tomatoes on toast.
Mold grew all over the place. I saw some odd examples. Want some?
When I scattered “layer pellet” for my chickens a few pellets would bounce outside the chicken wire. The next day they had grown white beards of mold.
So did flies trapped in my car. I’d try to wave them out of my vehicle, but one evening I was too weary to be bothered, and when I got in the car the next morning three flies were on the inside of my windscreen, dead as doornails and covered in white mold, like itty-bitty wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing.
But when mold started growing on the legs of my dining room chairs, I bought a dehumidifier. (My wife was washing our furniture in vinegar to stop the mold, and that is work we don’t need). (Also I don’t like the smell of vinegar; in a salad dressing viniger is OK; but not as an air freshener).
Even the foliage of trees seemed to get moldy, especially in the understory where leaves never dried out. Up higher the foliage was vigorous and green, and I expect the tree trunks grew wide rings this year, but down in the shade the leaves had struggles and by the start of August I saw the lower foliage of both Oaks and Maples simply turning brown and falling off. Here’s an Oak:
And here’s a Maple:
I am sixty-eight and had never seen the leaves rot on the trees like this before. It was a bit creepy. I felt like a Hobbit marching into Mordor, where all life is blighted. Combined with the insanity reported in the news broadcasts, the summer became very depressing. Rot was everywhere. When I bought a loaf of bread at the market it was blue with mold before I had three mornings of toast. Mold spores must have been filling the air everywhere, and I did notice the children at our Childcare had runny noses, and sometimes their noses produced boogers especially green, as if mold was even growing in their noses. When even children’s noses started to look moldy, I felt like I was slumping into some sort of hysteria.
Fortunately, I have eleven years’ worth of experience with a Childcare’s expenses, and one amazingly big expense is Kleenex. It rivals diapers and wipes. Childcare Professionals are exposed to unholy amounts of snot, both viral (clear) and bacterial (green), and even washing your hands until they are chapped can’t avoid the simple fact you are doused in viruses and bacteria and either develop a healthy immune system, or else quit the business. Developing “natural immunity” is an important part of both childhood and being a functioning Childcare Professional. In fact, children who grow up on farms are far healthier than children who grow up in dirt-free high-rises. Also, Childcare Professionals tend to be healthier than people who are scared to death of snot.
Therefore, I was not excessively alarmed when I noticed I sniffled this summer. I figured it likely was “an allergy”, and due to all the mold spores. But I did notice that being a sniveler gave me power sniveling didn’t used to get me. In the old days, when you sniveled, people scorned and sneered at you as a sort of weakling. Now they assume you are carrying the dreaded corona virus and dive out of your way. If there is a crowd at the register at the supermarket, you are able to cut line just by sniveling loudly. Surely sniveling is far short of the power of God, but where God could part the Red Sea, a clever sniveler like myself could part a politically correct crowd, simply by strategically sniffling. But this power did not make me feel good. It made me feel the mold had infected the thinking of the politically correct.
I fought the sense that rot and fungus was winning, but at times it seemed reality conspired against me. For example, in August even the brooks and rivulets of clear, clean water seemed to get moldy. As the rains went on and on clean waters grew strangely brown. I frantically searched my memory for excuses.
Sometimes water gets brown due to silt, but at first this was clear-brownness, like tea without milk. Sometimes such clear-brownness occurs in brooks because falling leaves are like tea-leaves which steep in the water, but the leaves hadn’t fallen yet. Then I noticed the brownness began precipitating in the water, like some Mordor algae, brown rather than green, and at times the brownness even became a scum on the surface.
My faith felt tested. So I asked myself, “What would a Hobbit do in Mordor?” As I recall they lifted their eyes. Sam and Frodo then saw that above all the fume and stench of Mordor the stars still shone, in a realm untouched by corruption.
So, did I lift my eyes? No, as a scientist I crouched down and looked even lower, to study the phenomenon of brown waters.
It happened on a day when my dour mood was made more dour because, when the skies finally, finally cleared, they were dulled by the smudge of smoke from western forest fires. Under this yellow sky the brown water looked browner. But, after three days of yellow skies there was one rill which was finally, finally drying out a little.
This rill ran down a sandy path children’s feet have made in a pasture’s sod, and usually water only trickles down this path as the snows melt in April and early May, but this year the rill kept flowing all summer. The rill is born from a spring, and usually is sparkling and clear, so when even the rill turned brown I felt like I was in some sort of bad dream. Either that, or I’d been a foolish teenager and gone to see a horror movie on a bright, bright sunshiny day, and walked out afterwards into sunshine polluted by fear. But, when the rain actually ceased for three entire days, (albeit it under pus-yellow skies), the rill shrank and left brown crud on its coasts. So I crouched down to examine the crud. What did I learn by actually looking? I learned the brown crud wasn’t fibrous filaments like Mordor algae. It was a powder like….like….pollen.
Only then did I lift my own eyes, just a little. I immediately saw many plants loved the rain and were twice as tall as usual. Some copious pollen-producers had dull green flowers, like ragweed, but the goldenrod and purple asters were as tall as I was, and were as yellow and purple as Easter in the fields. And once my eyes began lifting, they kept rising, and I saw the tops of trees were dried enough by breezes and sunshine to defeat the mold, and rather than dropping rotted leaves, the leaves were flaring the healthy hues of early autumn’s glory.
This seemed a good symbol. If you want health in Mordor, stick to the high ground. The mold likes the low places of the Swamp.
I suppose this idea will eventually metastasize into one of my awful sonnets, but as a survivalist I also had to study how nature responded. Was the rot winning, and causing animals to starve?
Not at all. The wet produced clouds of mosquitoes, which humans don’t like but which make birds and bats fat. Also a dry spring and wet summer produces a bounty of wind-pollenated nuts, such as acorns.
You nearly needed a helmet, walking under the oaks. And although acorns are so loaded with tannic acid that they are basically inedible, the original survivalists of New England knew how to make them edible. They’d scoop out a deep hole beneath the waterfall of a brook, and fill it with acorns, and just let the waters wash for month after month. Slowly but surely the tannic acid was washed from the nuts, yet the nuts could remain edible for years. I have read of such a stash of acorns discovered twenty years after the person who put them there departed, and those twenty-year-old acorns were judged especially sweet by the people who ate them. (If you are unwilling to wait twenty years, and are starving, you can hurry this process by boiling the acorns twenty times, and discarding the blackish water twenty times)
Of course, chestnuts were preferred over acorns, by the original survivalists, for they are delicious as they fall, but early in the twentieth century a terrible blight came from overseas and struck down this food supply. It was a grief of my grandparent’s time. But the chestnuts never quit. They kept sending up shoots from their roots, which the blight would again kill, whereupon new shoots would arise, until now, after a century, some of the shoots seem to be becoming more immune to the blight. Perhaps in my grandchildren’s time people will again rustle through fallen leaves looking for the prickly burrs, as my grandparents did. But for now, you have to know the woods well to find the shoots briefly producing burrs, even as they die.
Invasive blights have also struck down our elms, ashes, dogwoods and now our beeches. But one thing a dying tree does is produce nuts. It is as if they know they are dying and put all their effort into perpetuating their species. The woods are full of beechnuts.
There are so many beechnuts the squirrels can’t remember where they buried them all, (or, even if he could have remembered, that particular squirrel became prey for a hawk, and his stash remained buried, and sprouted the next spring.) In the sunny places where towering beeches have died, the forest floor is covered with hundreds of beech saplings. Who is to say one or two might not have immunity to the latest blight?
Nature fights back. It doesn’t just roll over and die, when afflicted by a blight from Mordor. Just as Johnny Nash moved from bankruptcy to a million-seller, nature has ways of moving from blight to bonanza. As a survivalist, you simply need to keep you eyes open, and to look.
Besides bonanzas of acorns and beechnuts, there have been others. Wild grapes have been prolific. And one bonanza which should have been obvious to me involved cranberries. Cranberries dislike dryness and thrive in the wet.
There was one patch which looked like it might be dying out, during the drought of last May and June. It spread like crazy once things became so wet. I’d say no farmer’s care could have done so well. The patch tripled in size, and produced cranberries galore.
The cranberry patch is more than able to feed the local flock of wild turkeys, and the children at my Childcare. But cranberries have pucker power, and you might think a modern child’s addiction to sugar would make children adverse to eating them. But I use reverse psychology. I tell them, “You won’t like them. Only grown-ups like them. You can try one, but they are wicked sour. You can spit it out, if you want.” Then, perhaps to show how grown-up they are, the little children do try one. Often they spit it out. But then something odd occurs. The children try another. Pretty soon they demand we detour on our hikes to other places, so they can visit the cranberry patch, so they can pause to munch the sour fruit. It likely does them good, as unprocessed cranberries have a fair amount of vitamin C and antioxidants. Also, it likely does them good, in terms of seeing things don’t need to be drenched in sugar to be appealing.
Now, if we could only teach the Elite in the Swamp the same thing: Things don’t need to be drenched in lucre to be appealing.
But I fear such Elite fools will need to first make a Mordor. Only then will they see life can be far better than Mordor. Like Johnny Cliff they need a bankruptcy to succeed. (Unfortunately, they seem determined to drag the rest of us along for the ride.)
The phrase “Going to hell in a wheelbarrow” goes back to medieval times, and appears in the stain-glass windows of old churches, but alliteration prefers the “H” sound, so there are all sorts of variants: “To hell in a handcart” apparently sprang from “wheelbarrow”; “To hell in a handbasket” may have sprung from the grim days when guillotined heads were caught in baskets. The phrase often means things are going bad swiftly, which brings us to, “To hell in a hurry”. Lastly, my stepfather told me that up in Maine his grandfather substituted the word for a horse-drawn-taxicab, “Hack”, and quite often an extra “H” sound was added in by using the word “whole”, which resulted in his grandfather stating, over a hundred years ago, “This whole, wide world is going to hell in a hack”.
In any case, we are not the first to look around and roll our eyes at the sight of the entire world seeming to be going down the tubes. (If you should currently happen to be feeling that way.) Misery loves company, and it is good to know you are not alone. However the sensation can be so overwhelming that a sort of loneliness creeps in.
There’s a good story about such loneliness from around 2900 years ago, which demonstrates how crushing such depression can be. The tale goes like this:
Despite the fact Elijah had soundy defeated the prophets of Baal, he was threatened by the murderous Jezebel and fled into the wilderness, where he crumbled into complete despair, stating, “I have had enough, Lord. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” God had to send him an angel to nurse him back to a semblance of sanity.
Elijah then flees further into the wilderness, until he has an encounter with God. In explaining why he’s run away from worldly responsibilities Elijah justifies, “The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your alters, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
So it is obvious Elijah feels very alone, but, in the process of dusting Elijah off and getting him back into working condition, the Lord reveals to him, “I reserve seven thousand in Israel – all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him.” So Elijah was not as alone as he felt and thought.
Roughly two hundred years earlier the poet (and king) David faced similar depressions, and a similar sense of futility and despair. For example, Psalm 10 begins:
Help, Lord, for no one is faithful anymore; Those who are loyal have vanished from the human race. Everyone lies to their neighbor; they flatter with their lips but harbor deception in their hearts.
But one odd thing about David’s misery is that it is, “For the director of music.” It is part of an event I’ve heard described as a “public lament.” It makes me very much wish I could go back in a time-machine and see what an audience in David’s throne room was like. In any case, it seems that it would have been very hard for David to feel alone when he sung his blues so publicly.
I should add David doesn’t just moan and groan. After articulately expressing his disappointment over the dismal levels of spirituality displayed by his fellow man, (friends as well as enemies), and perhaps hinting God ought to kick a few butts, he always adds a resounding affirmation of God’s goodness and power. Also David’s faith addresses God in the present tense, giving one the sense God is not far away in space and time, but in David’s throne-room. Besides being Infinitely Loving and Infinitely Powerful, God is Infinitely Close.
I always find this idea a bit disconcerting. To be honest, I instinctively flinch away from the idea of God being so nearby. I seek distraction, but have to admit I am the one drawing away from God, not Him from me. Nor can I truly escape. He is as close as ever, though my attention wanders away to dumb things such as….well, I won’t go there.
But what is true for me is also true for people who I consider “bad guys.” As soon as I thought this, into my mind’s eye came an image that tickled me: I imagined a boardroom full of plotting politicians and billionaires, up to no good, utterly unaware that sitting in their midst was God.
This idea seemed worth a sonnet:
If God is in all then He is even In the plots of the wicked. What great fools They are, whether with plots to stone Steven Long ago, or to make computers tools Of wickedness today. For God’s sitting In at every board meeting, intimately Involved, cognizant of greeds they’re getting Gratified, of double dealing, and He Wields the pure Law they aim at corrupting. He deals the cards they hold, and He can cheat Better than they. He can reach out and take The ace they hide up their sleeve, and defeat Despots with a stroke. This news isn’t fake: All thieves will win is a trophy of shame For God can steal hearts and wins every game.
Audley Bine’s appearance in the sanctity of my home struck me as an imposition, but I also knew it would be futile to protest to my mother. He didn’t have to put on his very-good-student face very much at all to wrap her around his little finger, for he was a man who had graduated from Harvard, and also could speak with a hint of an upper-class accent, and these two things automatically raised a person in my mother’s estimation. It also didn’t hurt that my mother’s grandfather was also a Bine, and she and Audley may have been distantly related. They also may have shared some unspoken common heritage due to the steep decline of the Bine family fortunes. Audley was a go-getter clawing his way out of poverty, and my mother was also a social climber. Though she’d been born poor, I thought my mother saw herself as a sort of Eliza Doolittle. She had cultivated a faux-English accent, and was thrilled at the prospect of moving to England for a year to mingle with the upper classes.
Though facing an unwelcome mandatory retirement from Harvard, my stepfather had accrued sabbatical time which he still could access, and discovered Oxford University didn’t mind that he was over seventy. He was therefore going there as a guest-lecturer, and also to study differences between English and American law. As he, my mother, and my two younger siblings lodged down in England, I was scheduled to be shipped north for a postgraduate year at a boarding school up in the northeast tip of Scotland.
In only six weeks my life as an American suburbanite would come to an abrupt end, and I had a sense there were things I wanted to finish. The last thing I wanted was some old person around the house getting in my way, and Audley struck me as old. Though only twenty-six he struck me as a person-over-thirty who I shouldn’t trust, and perhaps even a “narc”. He wore a sports-coat even in hot weather, which was definitely a bad sign.
I gathered from my mother and oldest brother that Audley needed a no-rent situation to help him through a lean time between his graduation from Harvard and his first paycheck. He had landed a job as a teacher at a boarding school up in New Hampshire. I liked him less for that, for I had an involuntary aversion towards most teachers because, in my opinion, all but a few teachers I’d known in school were unfriendly, unsympathetic, unimaginative, and some were downright nasty. Rather than help me learn teachers seemed an obstruction to my investigations (because much I wanted to investigate was, if not taboo, beyond the bounds of ordinary scholarship.)
It was difficult for me to express exactly what it was I was studying, or what it was I wanted to “finish” before I left for Scotland. Some things were admittedly crude; for example I wanted to “finish” my virginity. But most things were problems I sensed in a largely intuitive manner, involving how my community of suburban teenyboppers might survive in a world that seemingly wanted us extinct.
Suburban towns of that time felt under no compunction to make a place for the children they created. The town expected you to depart, either to college or Vietnam, and the only reason my idea, (that a community of youth might like to remain a community,) was not deemed laughable was because it never crossed most people’s minds.
I felt that such a heartless attitude was part of an old world, but that I was part of a new world which was going to replace such heartlessness with Truth, Love and Understanding. My blithe naivete seems a bit ridiculous, fifty years later, but I honestly believed I was living through a sort of spiritual revolution. Problems might surface, but problems could be solved. One of my favorite occupations was to sit around with my friends and solve all the world’s problems.
One of the world’s problems was pills. Despite my gross ignorance concerning the difference between a drug-high and a natural-high, I had only to look in a mirror to see that pills were not healthy. Admitting this simple fact forced me to admit that the purveyors of pills were liars.
Pushers always gave pills some sort of romantic-sounding nickname such as “strawberry starshine”, and advertised them as being “a real mellow mescaline”, when in fact most often they were amphetamines, barbiturates, or worse: One pill was called “black dot”; it was described as being “peyote”, because it made one vomit (and hallucinate after vomiting); in retrospect I think “black dots” were likely rat poison. Such pills were gobbled by trusting youths at parties, and dealing with the consequences of such indiscriminate trust was part of my life.
Even though I myself very much liked amphetamines, we all knew “speed kills”. We could see how swiftly certain musicians aged from album-cover to album-cover, and I didn’t like seeing similar aging starting to effect my seventeen-year-old face. Around the time Audley moved in I had decided to quit pills, and to stick with smoking leafy herbs, and also to eat more, regain lost weight, and to get back in shape by lifting weights.
A second problem was far more complicated than merely quitting an illegal drug. It was an awareness that sprang out of my enjoyment over hearing others “tell me their story.” I became aware that my community of teenyboppers were predominately from broken homes.
This realization came as something of a shock to me, for when my own parents separated in 1964 divorce was a rarity and I felt ashamed to be from a broken home. That shame became such a part of my life I didn’t notice times changing. In six short years divorce had become so commonplace in wealthy suburbs that less shame was involved. The divorce rate had leapt from 0.5% to nearly 50%, and in some cases divorce was even taken for granted. I heard kids ask other kids, “Your parents divorcing yet?” What was formerly unmentionable could be freely discussed, and being able to talk liberated me from the shackles of shame.
However this is not to say my peers were happy about divorce. Divorce didn’t seem to involve the Peace, Love and Understanding which was our ideal. In a way (which I think few saw) it was our parents who were choosing an “alternative lifestyle” when they renounced traditional marriage, and we supposedly-radical children were actually the reactionary conservatives, in that we wanted to embrace some sort of wholesome fidelity.
Of course the subject was not all that simple. Some, both men and women, very much liked the idea of gaining the pleasures of sex without the responsibility of marriage, while others wanted a love that was true. Some disliked marriage because they saw their parent’s unhappiness as being caused by marriage, while others saw their parent’s unhappiness as being caused by their parent’s failure to behave married. And me? I tended to be wishy-washy, and to see both sides as having their points. To be honest, I was more interested in getting others to “tell me their story” than in standing in judgement.
This landed me in uncomfortable situations, for in “telling their story” people tended to badmouth and backbite others. Then a second person would “tell me their story” and it would involve badmouthing and backbiting the first. I called such situations “triangles”, and they made me very uncomfortable, for I felt a pressure to take sides. Taking sides was not the same thing as the “Understanding” I desired.
In a sense the two sides were like the two sides of an arch, and required the “keystone” called Understanding. Without the keystone the two sides fell to a heap of rubble and made a mess, but with the keystone the two sides held each other up. This was something I could see but could not grasp, yet I was aware that at times I myself could be the keystone, though I wasn’t aware how I did it.
For example, one unpleasant aspect of using drugs was a certain paranoia it involved. This was especially apparent when a person at a party left a room for a while and then returned. There would then be an awkwardness, as if the person had been talked-about-behind-their-back (and fairly often, but not always, they had been.) It was as if a societal ice had formed while they were away, requiring a societal icebreaker. I tended to be the icebreaker, even when I myself was the person who had left the room. Often it involved merely filling the returning person in on what-they-had-missed, thus allowing them to get back into the flow of the conversation, but at the time I had no clue how I did it. I just recognized misunderstanding was occurring, and intuitively ended it.
I also intuitively knew that the strength of a community is based upon building understanding, and felt an urge to strengthen the foundational understanding of my own gang. As the end of the summer approached this urge became akin to desperation, for I knew our teenybopper community would need to be very strong to withstand the challenges presented by a suburb which basically wanted to throw us all out.
Therefore I was pleased to hear my mother and stepfather were leaving for England, to reconnoiter the situation where they’d live and work, in and near Oxford, and after that to tour Scotland. They’d be gone a month, and I was looking forward to being the king of their castle while they were gone. I felt it would be a great opportunity to develop understanding in my community. My mother begged to differ, for where I saw “developing community” she saw “one big party” and envisioned holes burned in her carpets. Therefore she went out of her way to cramp my style.
First, she put her car in the shop and loaned my stepfather’s car to my oldest brother, leaving me without transport. Second, she gave me a list of chores, such as mowing the lawn and packing things away (as the house was to be rented while we were overseas), which seemed unfair to me, as she was burdening me with the chores of a castle while denying me the benefits. She told the live-in maid Margie to keep an eye on me. Lastly, she invited my oldest brother to stay, as well as Audley Bine, which crowded my space.
It did not seem to occur to my mother that I might not be the only one facing a “Senior Summer”, a final time free before plunging into a less-than-appealing future. Audley Bine was also facing an end to liberation, a switch from the company of brilliant minds at Harvard to the company of boring boys at a boarding school. All my mother saw was a very serious-seeming and sensible Audley who nodded at all the right times and only smiled when it was proper. (Where my mother saw great promise in Audley I must admit I didn’t think the fellow looked too promising.)
The first sign my initial impression might be incorrect occurred even before my mother and stepfather left. I’d gone trooping down to my bedroom with a group of my friends late at night, with everyone chattering like a flock of grackles, and once in the room I’d shut the door and opened the windows, to let the songs of summer frogs and owls in, and the smoke out. Just then the person closest to the door made a “hisst!” noise and raised an index finger. There was an instant silence, and then we all heard it: A tapping at the door, as if someone was knocking with a single, pointed finger. Swiftly all illegal substances were removed from view, as I sauntered across the room. After an appraising glance about at my friends all looking guiltily innocent, I opened the door. There stood Audley, wearing his very-good-student smile.
I fully expected some version of, “Could you keep the noise down; I’m trying to sleep”, but what he whispered was, “Could you sell me a nickle bag of Mooner?”
A friend nearest the door laughed, and then turned to explain to the others, “He wants Mooner!” The tension in the air dissolved to palatable relief. Part of 1970 was the experience of seeing many people you thought of as “straight” switching sides and “turning on.” I could hear my friends beginning to exclaim about the phenomenon, and the words, “He wants Mooner”, being repeated, but I was the one who faced going to jail for selling drugs, so I was not so quick to drop my guard. I brusquely asked, “Who said I had Mooner?”
That seemed like a fairly safe recommendation, but I was not about to reveal where I kept my pound hidden (down in a heating duct accessed by removing a grill on the floor). I simply reached in the pocket of my jeans and handed him my personal supply.
Audley looked at the plastic bag. “That’s too much. More like a dime than a nickle. Here. Let me remove some.” He then stepped further into the room and opened the bag on the flat top of a bureau, produced a packet of “Zig-zags” from a pocket of his sports coat, and with impressive speed and deftness rolled three cigarettes, which he handed to me. Having impressed everyone with proof he was no novice, he handed me five wrinkled one-dollar-bills, pocketed the rest of the marijuana, nodded, and left.
Despite this evidence, I still entertained the view that Audley was an intellectual and likely a “dweeb”, (though I deemed a dweeb who smoked pot better than a dweeb who didn’t) but that view also needed to be adjusted, shortly after my parents left for England.
The fact Audley wore a sports-coat in summer weather seemed part of an effort he made to present himself as being more wealthy than he actually was, and put him at odds with my gang. We scoffed at fashion. Around a year later signs began appearing on the doors of restaurants, “No Shirt. No Shoes. No Service,” and I always felt that sign was a personal affront. My view was that feet were far more healthy when bare, and that sunshine and dryness killed athlete’s foot, whereas shoes nourished the fungus. Furthermore we often visited Walden Pond, and the readers in my group liked to quote how Thoreau stated a man only needed two pairs of pants: One to wear and one to wash. Audley’s belief that how you “presented” yourself mattered was in direct conflict with our belief that it was what you were on the inside that mattered. Therefore it was with some relief we noticed Audley drove a battered Volkswagen bus that looked like it cost him fifty dollars.
Fifty years later I’ve noted such buses are nearly always portrayed in movies as a form of hippy-transport painted with flowers and peace symbols. Few actually were. (Many hippies couldn’t afford paint.) Hippies coveted the buses because they were very cheap even when brand new, and much cheaper used; they endured for years and could be repaired with a hairpin, so there were a lot of cheap Volkswagens floating about.
They were not a powerful vehicle. Whenever I saw one slowing down to pick me up hitchhiking I always felt a little guilty, for their air-cooled engines were so pathetic that I always felt the added weight of my body would force the driver to downshift, going up hills. Audley’s was especially ancient, and seeing him drive off in the huffing old wreck in the morning made him seem especially mortal and humble. But one afternoon we heard the far-off approach of a roaring car that squealed around distant curves of our country road, getting louder and louder. It was definitely not a Volkswagen. I was lifting weights outside with my older brothers, and we stopped to listen to the approach with interest.
My stepfather’s house had a circular drive with six apple trees in the middle, and the weights we lifted were in a turnaround off the circle by the garage. Abruptly, flashing bright orange against the green summertime background down at entrance, appeared a Lotus sports-car, which swerved sharply in and came around the circle six times faster than I’d even seen a car go on that circle, and then lurched to a halt in front of us. Audley was in the passenger seat, radiant and beside himself with laughter. The driver, a tall, elegant-looking young man with styled blond curls, swung out of the other side and walked over to my brothers, who were standing apart from me. He talked briefly with them, and they both shook their heads and jutted their thumbs over their shoulders at me. The man looked at me, and I thought I detected a trace of incredulity flicker across his face, before he walked over. “I’ve tried some of your Mooner. Excellent stuff. I’d like a lid.” He offered me a very crisp twenty and a very crisp five.
I hesitated, measuring the man. He wore a golf shirt rather than a sports-coat, but something about him oozed wealth and privilege. I decided a narc wouldn’t be so rich, nodded, took the money, and walked off thinking I was committing robbery, for usually I charged only twenty for an ounce.
I did notice one odd thing about the man’s sports-car as I departed. It seemed to have bits of cornstalks stuck in odd places: Behind the side mirrors, and in the grill, and hanging from both the front and rear bumpers.
As I returned with the contraband Audley was finishing a story that explained how the Lotus wound up in a cornfield. Audley seemed very enthusiastic, and appreciative of good driving where I thought bad driving must be involved. Rather than negative about failing to negotiate a curve Audley was extremely positive about avoiding a stonewall and a tractor. The driver inclined his head modestly, and then they hopped back in the Lotus and roared off.
I decided Audley likely wasn’t a dweeb. Dweebs don’t roar about in an orange Lotus.
The third bit of evidence that Audley wasn’t fitting my preconceptions was actually the start of our friendship, though one would think it was a good beginning to enmity, because it sprang oddly from the fact Audley liked to do yoga in silence in the morning, while I liked to bellow songs at the top of my lungs in the shower. As we passed each other in the hall outside the bathroom, me dripping in a towel and he slightly cross-eyed because his yoga involved trances, there seemed to be a gradual recognition that we went to a similar mental landscape, albeit in highly different ways.
As far as I was concerned yoga was a way to make your joints hurt; if I was going to seek such pain, I’d do stretching exercises before I lifted weights. Yet it was obvious Audley did it to get stoned. Not only were his eyes slightly crossed after he did yoga, but he leaned against the wall of the hallway as he walked. I found this intriguing, because getting stoned in any way, shape or form interested me. (I even tried out sitting cross-legged for five whole minutes, one time.)
What intrigued Audley about me involved the fact I seemed gifted, and could apparently do things without any discipline whatsoever. I’m not sure what first caught his attention; perhaps he overheard me improvising words to a song in the shower; in any case he became interested in my scrawls and doodles, and found them theoretically impossible. I wrote poems without any corrections (often with spelling mistakes) which Audley felt should have required six or seven drafts. To Audley my creativity seemed effortless, a fruitful trance that didn’t involve first sitting cross-legged, or controlling my breathing, or twisting my mind into a repetitive mantra, or any such discomfort.
Actually, after thinking about it for fifty years, I think my so-called “gift” involved huge discomfort, a discomfort greater than the contortions of yoga, a discomfort that went on and on and on for twelve years, a suffering which could make even subjects I delighted in become agonizingly dull, called “public schooling”.
Because my home was full of books I learned to read early, and therefore started grade school early, but being younger than others couldn’t make “Dick and Jane” interesting, or make classmates read any faster. Where the text read, “See Dick. See Dick run. Run, Dick, run!” a classmate would stutter and mumble, “Sss-suh-suh. Eee-eee. See. Duh-duh-ih-ih-kuh. Dick.” By that point I was flipping ahead, and when my turn to read came I had no idea what page we were on, so the teacher assumed I couldn’t read at all, and put me in the slow-group. (I don’t really blame the teacher, who was dealing with baby-boom classes of over twenty-five small children.)
In essence I was on the wrong page on the first day of school, and spent the following twelve years on the wrong page. Rather than gifted I think I was lost, but, whatever I was, it was boring as can be. I had to find some way to keep my brains entertained. Therefore I developed my ability to doodle and scrawl rhymes. It was not effortless, for it took twelve years.
After I graduated it might seem that, without the reason to doodle and rhyme, I would stop doodling and rhyming, but at times life itself became as boring as algebra class, and I felt the same need to keep my brains entertained. To some degree I may have done it to also entertain my friends, in the same way I entertained my back-row buddies (who were as bored as I was by algebra class), but it didn’t really matter if anyone liked it. It was a joy in and of itself, and I did it because the person in need of laughter was myself.
Then Audley would wander by, and perhaps see a notebook on the kitchen counter opened to a page like this:
Such doodles stopped Audley in his tracks. He was fascinated, and whenever I was writing (in various places around the house and yard) he often came drifting up behind me, to look over my shoulder casually, and to ask what I was composing. Depending on my mood (or what drug I was on) I might be unwelcoming, or a chatterbox who volunteered far too much information, but Audley always listened with his very-good-student smile.
One time I was looking over a long poem called, “Exercise In Expressing What Hasn’t Made Itself Clear.” It was a mess, moving down one side of a page, sideways along the bottom, and upside-down back to the top, using up ever bit of available space with either writing or garish illuminations:
I was very dissatisfied with my effort, sneering at the page, but Audley wanted me to read it to him. I made various disparaging statements, but he insisted, so I read the entire thing.
It was actually fun to read to him, for he’d interrupt and ask me what I meant by certain statements, and then ask me to read the passage again. Also he’d exclaim or laugh, sometimes even shouting, and then I’d stop and demand he explain what he was making noise about. After I was done on this occasion he said, “Read part twelve again,” so I read,
Take the time To be together Then cry a little Sigh a little Raise a little hell. It will work in in any weather And in every case I know It works out Well. Take some time for understanding. Give a little reassurance to a friend. Protect yourself but leave him standing. He may be the Alka-Seltzer in the end.
Audley commented, “That actually has a unique meter. Dum-de-dum-dum. Dum-dum-dum-dum. But it seems familiar somehow. How did you come up with it?”
I laughed, “It’s from ‘Deck The Halls’. The Christmas Carol. You know, fa-la-la-la-lah fa-la-la-lah”
He looked astonished. “Why’d you chose that?”
“Oh, I don’t know. The poem just seemed to be getting too down, too heavy. I thought I’d lighten it up a bit.”
Audley chuckled, “So you stuck in the tempo of ‘Deck The Halls’?”
“Yeah. It’s hard to get too serious when you’re going fa-la-lah”
Audley shouted a laugh and shook his head. “You have no idea how fucking amazing that is. Look here.” He jabbed a finger on the page. “You don’t even correct a word. You just write down a complicated meter like it’s a grocery list.”
I scoffed, “It’s not complicated. It’s practically a nursery rhyme”, and Audley looked at me incredulously, shaking his head.
It is a very nice thing to discover, every now and then in life, that someone thinks you are a genius. But I had mixed feelings about Audley’s admiration, for I didn’t feel I was the genius. What I witnessed when high was the genius, whereas I was the incapacity, the one constantly attempting, and constantly failing, to show what I saw.
Despite being young and naive I did suspect some sort of ulterior motives might be involved in Audley’s praise, however Audley wasn’t the sort who sweet-talked when face to face, and badmouthed behind your back. Word leaked back to me he was going around and telling people he had discovered the next Robert Frost.
This was a bit embarrassing. Also I didn’t much like the concept of being “discovered”, when I was the one doing the exploring. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella might be able to say they “discovered” Columbus, for he couldn’t discover America if they didn’t fund his ships, but my discoveries didn’t need ships. Not that I worried all that much about who got credit for what. Occasionally I might feel a passing wave of drug-induced paranoia, and fret about people “stealing” my ideas, and be hit by the urge to copyright everything in sight, but then I’d remember copyrighting would involve bureaucratic paperwork, and I’d be repelled. In my book paper was for poetry. Lastly, there was something absurd about the idea of copyrighting a poetic vision; it would be like attempting to plant a flag in a sunrise and claim the dawn in the name of a mortal king.
But it was difficult to dampen Audley’s enthusiasm. When he was hit by an impulse one tended to be blindsided and carried away.
For example, one day I had a whim of my own and, because I had no car, was planning to hitchhike to the trolley to go into Boston to its dilapidated waterfront to see my sister, who worked as a secretary in a warehouse on a pier that had an old, sunk, wooden fishing boat tied to it, (which I thought was “really cool”), and also to check out “Andre the seal” at the new Aquarium being built as “urban renewal” a couple of piers down the waterfront. It seemed a simple enough schedule, but then Audley stepped in.
Audley first asked me where I was going, and kindly volunteered to drive me to the trolley, but then decided, before we were halfway there, that he might as well drive me all the way in to Harvard Square, and soon afterwards stated that as long as I was in Harvard Square I should meet a Harvard poet he knew. I found the change to my plans bewildering. One moment I was going to see my sister and a harbor seal named “Andre”, and the next I was going to meet a genuine Harvard poet.
I was a little in awe. I’m not sure what I expected; (perhaps an austere old man who wrote with an eagle’s plume).
Audley’s Volkswagen bus puttered up to a seedy old building and jolted to a halt double-parked, and he flew out the van’s door and trotted up two flights of stairs to a stark apartment with almost no furniture, with me taking two stairs at a time to keep up. He barely paused at the door, banging loudly on it three times before bursting in without waiting.
I was very impressed by the poet, though unfortunately he was too occupied to grant me an interview. He was busy suffering, walking about with the back of his hand pressed to his forehead, striding swiftly yet aimlessly from window to window, looking out and up at the sky with an expression of anguish.
Audley instantly forgot all about me, instead trailing the poet, making sympathetic noises. I stood politely waiting in the stark living-room as they passed to and fro, to the far bedroom window and then to the kitchen window, repetitively. After a while standing hat-in-hand grew tiresome, so I looked around. The couch seemed to be the front bench of a car, and the coffee table in front of it was an old steamer trunk with brass trim. On top of it was a pamphlet of poems, so I sat down to scan the pages.
Much of the poetry seemed to employ gimmicks, such as sheets of pink paper, or the word “I” spelled in the lower case, and much seemed written in the tremendously stoned state wherein the inconsequential seems profound; a butter knife seems as amazing as Shakespeare. For example, one poem was the single typed word “stars” with typed asterisks strewn over the rest of the page. There were also some simple ideas made difficult, when I thought poetry was suppose to be the other way around. However there were also some very nice images, and I was intrigued by the word “Avalon” that appeared here and there, used in a loose and unspecific way.
Suddenly I noticed the footsteps had ceased crossing back and forth in front of me, and glanced up to see the poet looking down with his arms folded and a challenging look in his eyes, almost as if he was daring me to be critical of his poems. Instead I innocently inquired, “What is Avalon?”
A brief, smokey look of respect filled the man’s eyes, and he answered, “It is where you are young.” Then a look of anguish began to fill his face, and his eyes lifted to the far wall and looked through it to some distant space. “Everything is green there.” Then he raised the back of his wrist to his forehead and went staggering off.
I excused myself shortly thereafter, but as I took the trolley over the river and then underground to the Boston waterfront I found my mind had become more fertile, due to this meeting with a genuine Harvard poet. The person seated across from me in the subway might have wondered why I kept mouthing the word “Avalon”, but by that evening I was busily doodling. Soon Audley came by, curious about what I had written. It was a poem about yearning for a lost childhood, and began,
Swim on up the river And Avalon is mine. The water’s moving five miles While I do four point nine.
“Perfect!” shouted Audley, making me jump. Then he looked at me innocently and said, “Proceed.” I ventured on, and several stanzas later read a stanza that stated,
I think I was in Avalon Before my memories end. I wonder if my place was saved By some pre-fetus friend.
Audley gave another shout and burst into delighted laughter, pounding his knee.
I felt a little indignant. That stanza was not suppose to be funny. “What are you laughing at?”
“Pre-fetus”, gasped Audley, “Pre-fetus”.
“What’s wrong with “pre-fetus”?
“There is no such word.”
“No, you made it up. You coined it, but it’s perfect, I tell you; it’s fucking perfect,” and with this Audley vented an odd whoopee, like a cowboy.
I regarded him a bit coldly; my poem was about a significant philosophical question, (whether there was life before birth), and here he was getting all sidetracked by a dumb word. However as I watched his enthusiasm I couldn’t help but smile. At times Audley single-handedly seemed like a congregation of about fifty, all shouting “Amen” at a preacher’s every utterance.
Audley and the Harvard poet and Avalon had coalesced into a thought-form my mind played with, yet it was only one of the many thought-forms drifting through my parent’s house while they were away. My oldest brother Halsey had other friends, and though he himself didn’t talk much he often would improvise elaborately at the piano for hours on end in a way strangely like a sermon, creating thought-forms without words; the piano became the background music of that time.
Also my other older brother Hurley appeared out of the blue, about as opposite Audley as possible, for he was in violent reaction to orthodoxy in all its forms. (He’d been the most practical and “square” member of the family, a pillar of strength midst the ruins of my parent’s divorce, but all that ended in a flash when my mother remarried.) He had a black girlfriend Iris, (which shocked many, both black and white, back in those days), and Iris was warmhearted and had a loving laugh and was kind to me. The keystone of Understanding brought Hurley and Iris together despite a vast gulf, and furthermore the two of them got on well with Audley, which made no sense to me, for the yoga Audley followed was orthodox. Hurley was more in the mood to throw all rules and regulations out the window. However the keystone of Understanding brought the two men together, (perhaps because Hurley didn’t entirely reject discipline; he was disciplined about disliking disciplines). I liked to sit back and watch them debate whether rules were wise, or whether rules were merely an invention the wealthy used to control the poor with.
The only person-over-thirty in the household was Margie, a fifty-year-old live-in cleaning lady and cook from Canada my mother had employed for seven years. She had a ne’er-do-well husband with a “bad back” and six grown children, whom she visited in a poorer part of Boston every weekend, but during the week Margie had become part of my family. With my parents gone she felt an unstated responsibility to keep some semblance of control over the household, and if I was sitting on the couch with my girlfriend watching TV I could expect her to be a nuisance, coming through the room with armloads of laundry though it was after dark. She felt it was urgent that she chaperone because she had seen some of her sons forced to marry girls they had gotten pregnant, and she wished to save me from a similar fate. She also wanted to save Hurley and Iris from such a fate, and, when they went arm-in-arm into the woods behind the house with a blanket, Margie promptly trotted to the edge of the woods and began calling Hurley’s name. Hurley tried to ignore her, but when she persisted, calling and calling, on and on and on, he became annoyed and walked out of the woods stark naked and demanded, “What the heck do you want!” Margie ran back into the house as fast as she could.
I felt sorry for Margie and went into the kitchen as she had a cup of tea and four cigarettes. (She actually did this every day at “tea time”.) As we talked the spirit of Understanding walked into the room, and even though she was a person-over-thirty we had an amazing conversation.
Margie was a Catholic, and had a peculiar relationship with my mother, for she had remained faithful to her husband where my mother chose divorce, and she disapproved of birth control and abortion while my mother approved. Before my mother remarried they had been two women attempting to raise their separate families of six children with unhelpful husbands, one in a slum and one in a posh suburb. Neither could have made it without the other. My mother liked to see herself as the charitable one, helping Margie with immigration paperwork, and helping her get false teeth when her entire face swelled up, but there was no way my mother could have worked graveyard shifts as a nurse without Margie watching her children at home.
After four years my mother’s remarriage changed things. My mother had come to dislike Margie, as she became aware Margie didn’t approve of remarrying, and this dislike hardened when she became aware Margie told my Dad what his children were up to, which seemed like “spying” to my mother. As a consequence, at the end of the summer, Margie was going to be out of a job. This gave our chats a certain poignancy. This woman, who had been part of my life since I was ten, was going to vanish.
On this occasion Margie put down her teacup and casually wondered what drug Hurley and Iris were on, and, without anger, began to ask me what being “high” was like. She seemed particularly interested in hallucinations, and I did my best to describe them, whereupon she surprised me by describing similar hallucinations she had experienced without the help of drugs. She took me back to her youth.
She had been living in a London slum in the 1950’s, on a street which still had not been entirely rebuilt after the Blitz, in a house they had to evacuate from time to time as a UEB unit came by looking for an unrecovered and unexploded German bomb under the street. This danger was especially stressful as she had many small children and was pregnant yet again. She was clinging to her faith in her husband’s ability to provide, but he was breaking that faith on a regular basis. Because his back was bad she had signed him up for correspondence courses, but when the lessons came in the mail he scorned them. Finally it hit home to her that her man was not going to step up and be the hero she saw, buried deep inside his bloating beer belly, and that was when the wave of emotions and hallucinations overcame her.
The thing that was surprising to me was that she didn’t find the white walls turning colors and moving particularly unpleasant, nor did she stop caring for her children. Somehow she got the family back home to Canada, where they could at least grow better food than post-war London offered, and then she left her children with relatives and immigrated down to Boston, initially as a green-card worker just for a summer, and then moving her husband and children down when Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” promised better welfare than Canada had. One way or another she “got by”, and now, at long last, even her youngest was grown.
She was going to miss my family, which in a sense was her second set of six kids, but in another way leaving was going to be a relief. She lit another cigarette, and mused that for the first time in many years she’d have some time for herself, cocking her head to listen as Halsey began playing on the piano in the background.
I lit a cigarette of my own, appreciating yet another thought-form drifting through the household, and wondering if there might be a poem in it.
My own gang of teenyboppers like to come by and hang out, slightly in awe of the “old people” (who, besides Margie, were all under twenty-seven), and I never knew what sort of conversational chemistry might occur. I didn’t even know who might be home when I got home. I only knew that something marvelous was occurring. Our household became like no other home I visited. No one got too stoned or too drunk, nothing was ever stolen or broken, dishes were washed and the lawn even got mowed, and the entire time wonderful conversations were occurring. The Understanding I so deeply craved seemed to have moved in, and I yearned that It would feel welcomed and stay.
Even my girlfriend became involved, which seemed impossible because she was so very “straight”. She came from a solid family where her parents were able to argue without divorce being an option, and in some ways I liked keeping her separate from my hippy friends, as a secret serenity I could go to, to escape the turmoil and wildness of non-stop partying. I could depend on her parents to be strict and keep me from getting her in trouble, but suddenly they slackened the reins, and she shocked me by being less “straight” than I ever expected. For example, though she wouldn’t take drugs, one August afternoon we went swimming at a lake, and to my astonishment (and joy) she swam topless. However what shocked me most was an understanding I witnessed occur, which I had deemed utterly impossible.
My best friend, (one of the Three Musketeers I was part of), did not at all like my girlfriend, and she did not at all like him. They were irreconcilably different, part of a “triangle”. He was a “bad influence” and wanted to be free to take any drug and pursue any lust, and wanted me equally free, but she felt such “freedom” was addiction and slavery and would make me sick. The moment they set eyes on each other their eyes narrowed, and I felt sad and helpless because I liked both of them. When they arrived at the house at the same time in separate cars, I’d squirm. Yet so great was the Understanding flooding through the household that August that they decided that they could both like me without glaring so much. They could agree about something after all. Perhaps it was due to the fact I’d very soon be gone, in exile in Scotland. The sight of me packing perhaps prompted them to drop their differences, but to me it was nothing so simple. There was magic in the air.
Not that there were not differences, even with a persistently agreeable person like Audley. He did things I objected to. One was that I felt he tended to over-improve; Audley didn’t know when something was done.
For example, one time he sat down at the sheet of paper I laid out on the living-room table during parties, picked up some pastels, and with about twenty strokes of the chalks produced a beautiful landscape, in only thirty seconds. It was a rainbow over green hills, but what was most marvelous was how he captured the phenomenon of falling rain made silver by sunlight; it was mostly done by leaving the white paper white. I told him, “Stop right there,” but he insisted upon going on. I told him to stop a few more times, and then gave up in despair as he destroyed the picture with additions. He made funny “ick” and “eww” noises as the drawing grew worse and worse, and finally, when the rainbow was brown, he looked up at me sheepishly and admitted, “I should have stopped.” However he then bellowed laughter. (There was something about the atmosphere of the house that escaped recriminations).
Somehow it felt safe-to-be-open in that house, and one way Audley contributed to that that sense was to counter my self-disparaging remarks with affirmative encouragement. I didn’t always like this, for sometimes the origin of the disparagement was a person I respected. Yet, without the critic present, Audley would leap to my defense, indignant any should be so crushing towards a sensitive poet like myself, and he would verbally demolish the other person’s disparagement.
To be honest, I didn’t entirely mind hearing how those who criticized me were insensitive barbarians, especially when the absent people being rebuked were my sometimes-scornful older brothers, but on the other hand I loved my brothers, and felt put in a “triangle” that lacked understanding. However, for the time being, the understanding I was gaining far outweighed the lack-of-understanding I sensed was also present.
Perhaps the most destructive thing Audley did was to tempt me with drugs when I was trying to quit. Not that it took much persuasion; my spirit was willing but my flesh was weak. I recall at that time I developed a hacking cough, and one day, in disgust, I dramatically shredded a pack of cigarettes in my girlfriend’s back yard, but then, within fifteen minutes, found myself hurrying down the street to buy a fresh pack.
It was easy for Audley to lead me astray; all he needed to do was crook a finger from the doorway of my older sister’s old bedroom, and I’d postpone mowing the lawn. He liked to sit cross-legged on his bed and hold court, as I slouched comfortably in an armchair, looking out through a big picture window at sky and tall white pines reflected in a dark forest frog-pond, only forty yards away.
I recall Audley smoked a water pipe from Nepal that looked like it cost four times as much as his Volkswagen bus. It was made of sterling silver with an ornate, etched design, with inlaid turquoise and red coral. Our conversations went places I greatly enjoyed, no matter what we discussed, and often he would want to see what I’d written that day.
Audley was appreciative of art even when he was straight; when he was stoned he could be downright absurd. For example one time he asked me to read a poem I had decided was far too belaboringly mushy, and was disgusted with. It went like this:
Ah, cry wind. Sigh wind, And people say you blow. And learn, summer sun, To burn someone Before its time to go.
Anger grows, Throws Caution to the wind.
Frustration burns Turns Everything dry.
and we haven’t sinned…..
…Wind sighs Sun fries People catching Butterflies And pinning them down Unsatisfied To have them around. Wanting Control.
The wind cools the sun While the sun Warms The wind.
We haven’t sinned.
Butterflies Beautify Sparkle the land Touch the sky.
Couples lie Blue sky Butterflies Wind sighs Dew cries It’s time for sun to go.
Why is it we want more? When at sea you seek the shore But when on land we yearn for waves again… …Daddy shaves again Removing his animal hair Thinking if it isn’t there No one would dare Ask him to share His world With the wind And sun And he won’t have to run From the natural Animal.
We’d smoked a hefty amount of Mooner before I read the above poem to Audley, and Mooner was strong marijuana (for those days) and Audley was very stoned. He made such a racket as I read the above poem it became ridiculous. I read it slowly, with pauses, and he filled the pauses with yells and whoops, but what seemed like going-too-far to me was that each time I read the word “butterflies” he’d make a cooing noise, all but clasping his hands and prancing about on twinkle toes. I was getting used to his demonstrative behavior, but if I’d had friends around I definitely would have been embarrassed. I blamed the Mooner. (To be honest, Audley wasn’t the only one acting oddly; I was reading with the panache of a rock star on a stage.)
Besides performing poems I also liked to just talk about things, for Audley was a walking encyclopedia of historical trivia, especially when it came to incidents in the lives of famous people. It seemed he hadn’t just read one biography about a man such as Beethoven or Napoleon, but ten about the same man, and therefore he knew scores of factoids about their darkest moments, which made what they overcame all the more thrilling.
I had far less to offer in return, but he seemed fascinated by how my mind worked, how I arrived at conclusions without needing to undergo the bother of researching in any ordinary manner. Audley would ask me questions and get me wondering about things I ordinarily never thought about.
For example, what some called my “creativity” actually seemed a sort of “following”. My mind worked with connections that stated, “If A, and if B, then it ‘follows’ that C will result”. In other words, I was not the creator, I was the follower. This seemed weird, when I thought about it, for what was I following? Something good, or something bad? I had no idea, and if pressed I likely would have been wishy-washy and answered “both”. Sometimes my mind wandered towards hell and I felt queasy in my gut and “heavy”, and then would veer towards heaven and feel uplifted and “high”. But I didn’t feel all that creative, and rather that I was “following” a stream of logic, almost as if I was taking dictation as muses spoke.
Audley would make a great fuss and say what I was doing was impossible, when it seemed like no big deal to me.
For example, Audley would poke fun in a friendly way over how I refused to spell words correctly, even when he told me the correct spelling multiple times. I insisted on spelling “disgust” as “discust”. He got all psychological about it, and stated some bad teacher had stunted my memory-skills, for I was downright mulish when it came to refusing to memorize. I had to agree. I had flunked learning new vocabulary words in French 1 classes for four straight years. Something about learning by rote made my skin crawl. Audley stated I displayed “avoidance” and “resistance” and various other psychological things, due to “trauma”. But a few minutes later I would blow him away with my ability to remember, when I wanted to.
For example, one time we were sitting about on the back patio with my friends, having the sort of wandering, free-association conversation which smoking Mooner generated, and the talk moved from topic to topic until someone burst out laughing, and they wondered how on earth we had begun talking about the cooling power of hats in hot sunshine, and wound up talking about the ability of a Voltswagen bus to climb hills carrying a heavy weight. Everyone was very stoned and suffering amnesia and had no idea, so I explained our progression:
Hats and hot sun had led to the topic of the tops of ears being sunburned, which led to other ear-injuries, which led to deafness, which led to Beethoven, which led to Beethoven playing a piano with all the strings broken, which led to how hard it is to move a piano to a repair shop, which led to describing loading a piano into a Voltswagon bus, which led to describing how an overloaded bus had to downshift to first gear to get over a hill.
After I was done describing our progression I noticed Audley looking at me with his jaw dropped. “How the fuck did you remember all that?” he exclaimed, “You can’t even remember how to spell ‘disgust'”!
I suppose the simple answer is that how to spell ‘disgust’ didn’t interest me, but what-followed-what did. It doesn’t matter if you use the word “follows” or “consequences” or “progressions” or “reaping-what-you-sow” or “Karma”, we are all like meteorologists and want to know what the weather will be tomorrow, and, if possible, we want to control that future. We may not control the weather, but we want to avoid starvation by avoiding planting thistles, if we want to harvest wheat.
Of course it is easy for me to say that now, fifty years after the fact. At the time I was just facing the end of a wonderful summer, and didn’t want it to end. My mind was casting about desperately for ways to keep the teenybopper community and wonderful household I was part of alive.
If you are to have any hope of altering the future, you need to look at “what follows what”. Scientists call this “cause and effect”, and religious people call it “reaping what you sow” or “Karma”, but I just called it “what follows what”. I simply was exploring, seeing where things took me, following some boss called “creativity”. I myself had no idea what might next be produced by my pen, and Audley found my production fascinating, for apparently I was freely accessing subconscious images it was, according to his books, very hard to access. At times the images in my doodles were more interesting than the words, and one time Audley insisted on getting a xerox copy of a illustrated poem containing a surrealistic, quasi-Salvatore-Dali example of “what follows what.”
It made me uncomfortable when Audley desired xerox copies of doodles and became very intense, in his desire to figure me out. He’d want to know why, in my doodles, I had certain things turn into other things, and what my symbolism symbolized, when I had no idea and no answer beyond, “It followed.” However he’d keep questioning, poking and probing with cross-examinations until at times I felt like some sort of laboratory rat. I just wanted to do what I did without thinking about it.
One time an issue involving staying-home-versus-leaving-home was preying on my mind, and I produced a troubled poem which ricocheted around four topics: Staying home; Staying home but preparing to leave; Leaving home intending to bring back a trophy; and Leaving home for keeps to make a new home somewhere else. To me it seemed that no matter what choice you made you would wind up someplace where you had to make the four choices all over again; no home was permanent; no jail could keep you from eventually escaping through the bars by dying, and after death I could see no reason one didn’t face the same four choices all over again in a different sphere, and my poem concluded:
You can never be completely together until you die Because you can’t give up Until you’re completely together.
Audley looked at me with a disbelieving half-smile, and inquired, “Do you really believe that?”
“Um…well…it just seemed to follow…”
“Have you studied any Buddhism?”
“Studied any philosophies involving reincarnation?”
“Um…well…there is that Crosby, Stills and Nash song that goes, ‘We have all been here before.’ What’s it called? Deja Vu?”
Audley laughed. “And that is the extent of your research. And yet here you scribble a poem that traces the concept of Nirvana not being achievable until one gives up on the rounds of dying and dying and dying over and over and over again.”
Sometimes I worried about Audley, and even felt a little guilty about the possibility that my poetry was driving him mad.
However, even when research is aimed at high things, (and Understanding is a high thing), such research can be quelled by a limitation called “time”. And we were running out of time.
Things started to come to a head as the end of August approached and Audley began packing, to head off and teach at the boarding school in New Hampshire. He stopped smoking pot and grew more serious, and even a little sad.
I fought off my own melancholy by planning a final party in the woods, but my gang of teenyboppers all seemed busy shopping for school clothing the day I went out to gather dead branches for the fire, so I spent an August morning in the woods all alone.
It was hot even in the shade, and the paths were dusty and parded by dabs of sunshine. I noticed the dabs moved, though the air was still where I worked, and when I paused and looked up I could hear a slight breeze stirring the treetops. Into my head came the beginning, “Walking through a forest where the wind won’t go…”
It was a beautiful patch of forest, on the divide between the Concord and Charles rivers, and had seen many come and go over the centuries. An old Indian trail crossed the land; Henry Thoreau had hiked the landscape; farmers had made a living there and later failed, and left prehistoric, red-rust-iron tractors with trees as thick as my thigh growing up through their archaic engine blocks, and also left cellar holes and an overgrown corduroy road through a boggy place. All these things seemed part of “my” woods, but when I looked over at our fire-pit I saw dead leaves blown into it, and even a few fresh forest weeds overhanging its edges, and had the sense I too was a fleeting phenomenon, an object to someday be regarded with nostalgia. A louder breeze stirred the treetops, and stirred my creativity, and when I got home I sat on the patio and wrote down what I’d been humming to myself.
When I was done Audley said, “Amazing.” His mouth was around two inches from my right ear, so I jumped a foot. I wasn’t sure how long he’d been watching over my shoulder as I wrote. He continued, “I don’t see how you can do that: Five stanzas with only one correction.”
“Oh, it was pretty much done when I sat down. I wrote it while I was walking.”
“And you remembered it all?”
“But you can’t remember how to spell ‘disgust’.” Audley shook his head, and didn’t give me time to defend myself. “And, by the way, that’s not how you spell ‘corduroy’.”
I responded, “And, by the way, you sound like a teacher at a boarding school.”
He winced, and then replied, “Well, I suppose that is what I now am, or am about to become. And you are about to become a student at a boarding school in Scotland. Are you ready for that?”
“No fucking way. I feel like a coward. I’m only going there because I don’t want to earn a living. What I really need to do is write a hit song. That would earn a living real fast!”
Audley didn’t get much peace and quiet to do his yoga in, the next morning, because I was using up all the hot water writing a hit song in the shower.
If Audley had really wanted to become fabulously wealthy he would have quit his job at the boarding school and dedicated his time to making me fabulously wealthy, as my agent, but instead he lugged his suitcase out to his Volkswagen bus and went puttering off to New Hampshire. Little did I know, but with him went a level of appreciation I have never since received, for my doodles, in fifty years.
Shortly after Audley left Halsey also left, in my stepfather’s car to pick up my parents at Logan Airport. I can’t say I was in a welcoming mood to see them again, though I did my best. After all, it was their house.
I could tell my mother was actually quite pleased to find the house was not only still standing, but quite clean. (We’d used copious amounts of air freshener, and had the windows open all summer, to hide the smell of smoke.) Not only was the lawn mowed, but the first fallen apples of fall were removed before they rotted. However she did not praise, and instead simply had to comment how our weather was inferior to the weather in England, which was weather which was never, ever too hot or too cold.
I found myself quietly grinding my teeth. My mother had a way of saying things in a practiced manner, and I knew she had her comment about the local weather worked out before the jet actually landed and she actually knew what the local weather actually was.
My younger brother and sister arrived home only hours later, after spending a summer at my father’s farm in New Hampshire. My little sister had an uncanny ability to merge into whatever culture she was with, and her accent caused my mother to exclaim, “Whatever has caused you to start speaking in such a ghastly manner?” I writhed, because my sister’s faux-New Hampshire accent was nothing compared to my mother’s faux-English accent.
My mother’s dislike of all things American seemed so extreme that I thought she was something of a traitor. I saw loyalty and patriotism as good things, because Understanding grows through time. The better you know people the more you understand them, but in my mother’s case familiarity seemed to breed contempt. Where I was grieving over the thought of leaving the teenybopper community I’d grown up midst, she was rejoicing over leaving the awful town behind.
Not that I couldn’t understand her wanderlust. I myself had a hunger to hitchhike away from the more sterile aspects of suburbia, but I had also glimpsed a way to end the sterility, with Truth, Love and Understanding. I wanted to stay and work on what I had, but my mother seemed seduced away by people she didn’t even know, but was infatuated into believing were better. Everything English was better, to hear her talk. She was so besotted it seemed useless to even reason with her, and there seemed no way she could understand how I felt about leaving the town I called home.
Therefore I cursed silently when I saw her pausing over my notebook, which I’d foolishly left open on the dining-room table. I had started a new page, and there was nothing but a short poem and some doodles in the upper left-hand corner, but I expected nothing appreciative from her; nothing like Audley’s reactions. When she read my poems there was never any humor over my spelling “disgust” as “discust”, but rather a wincing horror beyond disgust, and she was so troubled by such spelling she never commented on a poem’s passions, even to call them “ghastly”. I was pouting at her as she read, grouchily thinking to myself that no true American ever uses the word “ghastly”, when she utterly astonished me by looking up and stating, “You know, though you spelled ‘evening’ and ‘paradise’ wrong, I rather like the sentiment in this one. This phrase, ‘To be fair to the other side’, is especially good.” As she walked away my jaw hit the floor, and I walked over to the page to remember what the heck I had written.
I scratched my head. It seemed the Understanding still lingered in the house, and perhaps my mother had caught just a whiff of it. But then I heard my younger siblings exclaiming in delight. Rather than taking a jet to England they were learning we were going the old fashioned way, by ship, aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2. This made me feel grouchy, as if we were in some way being seduced, and were selling out. I even felt a little ashamed. It was not that Understanding was deserting us; we were deserting Understanding. We were turning our backs on the most beautiful thing, for gaudy glitter and glamor.
Disgruntled, I slouched off to borrow my stepfather’s car to drive to town for some hotdogs, and then headed out to friends and a campfire in the woods.
Only nine came to our final party in the woods, and only four stayed until dawn. It was a somber affair and a chilly night. I had the strange sense the “underground” had seen it’s summer in the sun, but now had to go underground again. I fear I was not much fun to be with, and bewailed the way people had turned their backs on the most beautiful things.
Most of the young woman in my gang had been strictly forbidden from attending such parties, as parties earlier in the summer had become legendary, but there was was one young woman there who may have been as young as fourteen, yet decided I could use a gentle scolding. She suggested I should count my blessings. After all, a trip aboard a luxury liner wasn’t exactly the end of the world. I sighed and thanked her, but it was the end of my world.
The next few days were a blear of packing. Even my notebook of poems-on-graph-paper got packed away and locked in a storeroom. Even when I thought I was done I was asked to help others. I caught a cold and smoked too much tobacco and was miserable, until, on the afternoon before the dawn I was to depart, two cars arrived, one dropping off my girlfriend, and the other driven by my best friend. They’d both come by for a final farewell, which would have been awkward enough with each all alone, but seemed especially awkward with the three of us together. What can you say? All words seemed stilted.
Just then it occurred to me I had something that would spoil if packed away for a year, and asked them if they would help me use it up. It was a birthday present some ill-advised person gave me when I turned seventeen. Wine improves with age, but champagne does not.
They agreed to help me use it up before it went bad, and I snuck the bottle from the house. (Though the drinking-age had been lowered to eighteen because of Vietnam, I was still too young to legally drink.) We casually and innocently walked around behind the house to a steep slope overlooking the frog-pond, and I shot the cork at the frogs.
I actually didn’t approve of alcohol, seeing it as an obsolete drug used by people-over-thirty, which likely explains why the bottle was passed around as if by soldiers, and became empty so inappropriately swiftly. And then it was like the spirit of Understanding came out of the house and down the hillside to us. The triangle gained three keystones. My girlfriend and best friend, who long had been worst enemies, became utterly charmed by the brilliance of each other, and together we three laughed. Lord, did we laugh.
Somewhere up among the bureaucrats of heaven, the angels in charge of keeping records sat up straight. Something unusual was happening on earth. Three teenagers, who had absolutely no reason to laugh, were rejoicing. Why? Because being what they were in that moment in time, brief though it was, was enough.
And then, it was over. My best friend drove off, and I borrowed my stepfather’s car to drive my girl friend home, and we sat in the car in the night outside her house to say good-bye for ten months, at least.
For teenagers, we’d been very pragmatic about the chances of our relationship surviving being an ocean apart. We’d given each other permission to date others, if interesting prospects appeared, but promised to remain “friends”. All that remained for me to do was to say some baritone adios, hopefully more profound than, “Don’t take any wooden nickles”.
I completely blew it, because all that came out of my mouth was unexpected sobbing. Once I started I couldn’t stop, as my girlfriend regarded me in frozen alarm.
Why did I cry? I think it was because deep down I knew that once you turn your back on beauty, it can be a long haul before you see it again. Turn your back on Understanding, and do not expect reason, or for life to make sense. If I’d had more guts at age seventeen I’d have stayed, but I lacked such guts, and I left.
Considering the economy of Maine was ordinarily depressed every year, once the warm weather and tourists departed, and considering the national economy was suffering “stagflation” as it struggled to recover from the Arab Oil Embargo, and considering unemployment was near 10%, you might think thatas soon as I heard there might be work at a sail loft in Portland I would have rushed to be there as soon as it opened the next Monday morning. But considering my tendency to procrastinate, it was somewhat amazing I made it by Thursday.
It may not be fair, but I did the psychologically-correct thing and blamed my mother. She had an amazing ability to derail my initiative. Rather than encourage me she always seemed to see problems in my plans. Part of that problem was that I often couldn’t be bothered with plans. I preferred spontaneity. I felt I was a man who could fly by the seat of his pants, but my mother tended to feel I couldn’t do that unless I first remembered to put my pants on.
It really won’t do, to go into too many details; after forty-five years there are things which lose their urgency; they pass beyond staleness and enter the realm of absurdity. Back-breaking straws are seen as what they actually were: Straws. Let it suffice to say that though we loved one another we weren’t always constructive. Her advice was unwanted, and I was not good at accepting advice.
For a woman over fifty she was remarkably well preserved, smooth skinned and slender, partly due to ointments, creams, lotions and potions that littered her bedroom bureau, and partly due to her insistence upon serenity. A serene face stays smooth. As a trained nurse she could remain calm midst blood and gore. Therefore it was something of a wonder to me that I could age her ten years in a flash, simply with the bad spelling within a poem. And my plans had the same effect.
One way she achieved serenity was to be extremely well prepared. She had grown up during the want of the Great Depression and had experienced the rationing of World War Two, and was careful to keep shelves well stocked, not merely in terms of food, but in terms of hand-lotions and lipstick and soap and detergent and floor wax and vacuum bags and nails and bolts and screws and bandages and medicines and toothbrushes and scissors and paper and pens and brake fluid and spark plugs. If World War Three had broken out, our home would have been the place to loot, (perhaps to prepare for such a contingency, she did have a gun permit, though I never saw an actual pistol.) She had savings and stocks and also other investments which wouldn’t crash if the stock market crashed, and she paid premiums on ordinary insurance as well as some insurances for odd misfortunes which it never occurred to most people to insure, (for example, for obscure diseases, or for earthquakes in New England). She avoided all debt; she and my father had bought their first home with cash, and she’d never had a mortgage.
One preparation she did not make was for nuclear war; I remember she and my father discussing building a fallout shelter, while walking around in our cellar when I was small, but I think they deemed the likelihood of survival too small to be worth the investment; their noble plan was to send us children far off into the hinterlands, if possible, and then to die in Boston treating the burned.
The only other thing I can think of, that she didn’t prepare for, was the waywardness of sons. There was no telling what we might do. Sometimes we might take off just to escape being prepared, because at times her preparedness felt as stifling as an OSHA horse.
Despite the suffocating aspect of being overly prepared, I really liked my mother’s serenity. There was something comforting about being in her presence; you just needed to approach her with care. Sometimes I had the delicacy to say absolutely nothing. I’d walk into a room where she was smoking and reading, meaning to ask her if she’d seen where I left my shoes, and decide not to bother her. Instead I’d pick up a magazine and light a cigarette of my own, and just sit, enjoying the comfort. Eventually she might murmur, “Yes, dear?” But what was really odd was occasions where I had forgotten what I came in to ask, and had become totally engrossed in the magazine, and she murmured, “By the pedals of the piano”. I was absolutely certain I hadn’t said a word to prompt such a response, but when I went and looked, that would be where my lost shoes would be. The woman was mildly psychic, yet was completely unaware of it.
Having now raised five kids myself, I’m more aware of the complete shambles the young can make of the most carefully constructed plans. I had less pity for parents when young, and called my mother “too withdrawn”. But I likely can’t imagine what it was like for an only child (like my mother was) to be confronted with the utter ruination of a parent’s idealism which six children are capable of achieving. However I do now know there are times an exhausted parent simply needs to zone out, to become comfortably numb. It need not involve alcohol or drugs; a good novel or prayer will suffice. In any case, it is unwise to press a parent at such times.
My Dad used to joke that, when my mother was smoking and reading, she would respond “Yes, dear,” to whatever we children asked or announced. If we said, “Mom! The back yard is on fire!” she would dreamily murmur, “Yes, dear.” He also would joke we had a “statute of limitations” and should not confess to fiascos which occurred while camping, or to having capsized our sailboat, until at least a year had passed, because, rather than enjoying hearing of an adventure, the tale would “disturb the peace.” However in the end he himself “disturbed the peace” too much, and was shown the door.
All six of us kids had tested her limits, and were all well aware we could push the serene woman too far. Her dreamy eyes were capable of blazing. It did not happen often, but partly that was because once you witnessed such eyes, you did not wish to ever see them again. As a result there were certain subjects we were extremely careful about, if we brought them up at all.
This resulted in a wrench in the works of communication. We kids were not blatantly dishonest, but there is something which, if not dishonest, is distrusting, about doing things behind a mother’s back.
One technique we utilized was the fait accomli. One brother came strolling in to dinner at age sixteen and mentioned, “Oh, by the way, I’ll be living in Germany this summer as an exchange student; a German kid will be coming here.” Such announcements can be disconcerting, if you are a parent who is big on careful planning.
Another technique was borrowing-without-asking. This caused no problems if the borrowed item was stealthily replaced in good condition, but my mother was not pleased if we forgot to put things back, or used her silver forks for can-openers and put them back looking like they were having a bad hair day. And there are some things you simply should not borrow-without-asking, such as a car or a rich neighbor’s yacht.
But now I was twenty-one, and figured I’d left all the goofs of youth in my past. I was grimly determined to make no further mistakes. I’d studied my dreams and motives with five different psychologies, and had decided that the best psychologists were poets, and Shakespeare was the king. I’d dabbled a bit with reading scattered scriptures, and then abruptly surprised many by dropping Atheism and by stating I was convinced there was such a thing as a Loving God, and that, even if I couldn’t solve every problem, I had a Friend who could. I not only felt I had a clear vision of my own gifts and weaknesses, but also thought I had everyone else weighed and measured, and that included my mother. Therefore it was surprising to me that, despite my supposedly advanced maturity, my mother could still completely derail me.
She might say something innocuous, such as that I’d be wise to get my hair trimmed before applying for the job at the sail loft, and it would feel like a insurmountable stumbling-block, because I had no money for a haircut. I’d then have to have a “session”, (with my self as my psychologist), sifting through all my rude and inappropriate responses for the appropriate one. This could take a long time, if I allowed it to, for I liked looking into the past at childhood memories (and quite obviously do to this day, and am doing it now.) The study of faded traumas, and the cause-and-effects of karma, is much more interesting than getting a job (to me). Also a change-in-life such as getting a job could result in odd dreams, and those dreams, if analyzed, were a gateway to the landscape of poetry, which was (and is) a beautiful place and felt more like home than some grim brick warehouse down towards the waterfront in Portland. However I was also self-aware, when it came to understanding the excuses I could invent to justify procrastination, so I’d be my own drill sergeant and tell myself to get off my butt and quit worrying about my hair. I’d just borrow my mother’s scissors from her hair-cutting supplies, and trim my own hair, and also write a reminder to comb it carefully when I applied for work, tomorrow. Tomorrow. Always tomorrow.
I could have used a bit of coddling, I suppose, but I had become aware of my need for encouragement and was sick of it. I felt I should be able to do the right thing whether people appreciated it or not. Maybe a little child needed reassurance and support, but I was an adult, and had quit promiscuous sex and drugs even though my hippy friends booed rather than cheered. As I looked in the mirror and trimmed my hair my face adopted an expression that was rough, and tough, and sneered.
Another wrench in the works involved the simple fact my shack down by the water had become too cold to live in. Keeping the pot-bellied stove going involved scrounging for driftwood along the shore, and I’d have no time for that, if I was working from dawn to dusk. Therefore I’d have to move up the hill to my parent’s basement, for at least the time it took me to get my first paycheck and could afford firewood.The prospect of informing my mother of this move made me nervous, as it would derange her order, but I was a rough, tough man, so I took a deep breath and tried to be bold without sneering. After all, in the poetry of Aaron Hill, way back in 1750, it stated:
Tender hearted stroke the nettle And it stings you for your pains. Grasp it like a man of mettle And it soft as silk remains.
It often turns out actions aren’t as terrible as one envisions beforehand. I had only gotten as far as venturing, “It’s…um…getting sort of cold down in the shack…um…and…um….I was wondering…um…” when my mother surprised me by swiftly responding, “Oh, good.” Then she continued, “I was hoping to get you to move up to the little cottage and keep its pipes from freezing, at least until I can convince your Grammy to move up from Massachusetts.”
The “little cottage” was one of two cottages crammed onto the hillside between the Main House and the dock. A dark haired waitress named Allison had rented it during the summer, but when the restaurant where she worked closed for the winter she’d been unable to come up with the money to pay the rent, and recently moved to a friend’s. I became busy packing up my papers, typewriter and clothes and moving them up the steep stairs to the cottage, rather than applying for work at the sail loft. In the process I found a couple of rumpled dollars and lots of loose change and, with $6.35 to my name, didn’t feel so broke any more.
Ordinarily it would take me a long time to pack papers. I seemed compelled to linger over each page, thinking and sorting. Also I had a reluctance to put away things undone, and one poem required a rhyme for “orange.” This would then involve taking my Mom’s two dogs for long walks by the water, looking thoughtfully at the sky. (Over forty years later I explained this dilemma to my youngest son, and it took him four seconds to respond, “door hinge.”) (However I’m still looking for a rhyme for “silver”.) Fortunately it was so very cold in the shack I was able to pack papers far more speedily than usual.
I had the good sense to avoid unpacking my papers. I knew that could take as long as packing them could. Instead I took my dirty clothes up to my parent’s washing machine, because I figured I wouldn’t have time for laundry once I was working. Then I headed back down to the small cottage and took out a notebook and planned out schedules and budgets I might adopt, if I got the job at the sail loft. It was at this point I heard a metallic clashing behind the cottage, and went out into the early evening to investigate.
It was Mort. Mort was one of the Tradesman who Tubs and Slim had gotten my mother in touch with, as she shouldered the task of renovating the property, and adding improvements.
Mort rebuilt brick chimneys, and was the perfect fellow to find, for initially every chimney on the property had seen better days, and the chimney for the little cottage was crooked and crumbling and looked like it might totter and fall in the next good gale. Mort had set to work the spring before, up at the main house, which had a three story chimney connected to two fire places and was a major job, and then worked his way down the hill, and now every chimney on the property looked new; to me they almost looked too good, too perfectly orange and straight and flat and neatly mortared and perfectly square; I figured a chimney ought to have a certain roughness or it lacked character, (though of course I kept my opinions to myself).
The little cottage’s chimney had been the last one he’d worked on, and there was some minor detail he’d been unable to get to before the arctic blasts hit, and he occasionally showed up during thaws trying to complete the task, which required temperatures above freezing. (Also I suspected he liked chatting with Allison, though she was a third his age.) Now at long last he was done, and was taking his aluminum ladder and two big tool boxes home.
I liked Mort, for he was the only tradesmen who didn’t automatically look at me askance, assuming I was a long-haired hippy and therefore hopelessly effete. Mort seemed strangely blind, in that regard, and always seemed glad to see me, and to chat about a vast repertoire of inconsequential topics. He spoke with a rich, coastal Maine accent, clipped rather than a drawl, and he also had the ability to make nearly any subject interesting. He appeared to be around sixty, was wiry and hale but also a bit arthritic, and usually had a young go-for with him to do the heavy work, such as lugging bricks. They never lasted long, as such lugging is hard work, but he would laugh he never blamed them for quitting, ” ‘Cause I can’t affawd t’pay ’em maw than peanuts.”
One helper, Sammy, apparently would return as soon as he had spent his paycheck, and Mort would chuckle about how mad Sammy would be to find he had been replaced, and how he’d tell Sammy to be patient, for the new help wouldn’t last. Sammy wasn’t to be seen, on this occasion, and other help had apparently all gone back to school, and Mort was regarding his ladder and two toolboxes with a sad, wry humor. Without even thinking, (because I had found religion and believed in random acts of kindness,) I offered to help lug stuff up the hill, saying I had to go up the hill to get my laundry in any case. Mort grinned broadly. For an effete hippy I was very strong, and could hoist the ladder to one shoulder and lift one heavy tool box with my other hand.
As we started up the steep hill Mort wryly and somewhat sheepishly explained in his clipped speech, (wonderfully turning some dropped “R’s” into entire syllables), “I da-yah not puttah my old truck down he-yah, fuh fe-yah, that with the drive icy, I’d be stuck down he-yah ’til May.” Then he glanced sharply up the hill, where another tradesman was shifting the topmost, flat field-stones of an enormous retaining wall. Mort called out, “Good aftahnoon, Mistah Cappatelli. ‘Bout finished?”
“Yep. Fool’s Folly’s ‘ficially finished. And by Gawd, I’m glad!”
“Fool’s Folly” was my stepfather’s name for a rose garden he had promised my mother. Because it was built on the steepest slope of the hill, the field-stone wall had to rise nearly twenty feet to extend a flat garden out thirty feet. The wall Mr. Cappatelli built was the biggest wall he’d ever built in his life, and perhaps taxed his engineering skills. His first effort had come crashing down when nearly completed. Undeterred, he rebuilt a better footing and the wall arose a second time, but it was the talk of the town, (or at least of the post office, where I learned details after I returned from India). It then was back-filled with subsoil, then topped with peat moss, and finally Grubby Douglas, the neighborhood gardener, came and planted a collection of roses in rotted horse manure and covered them with white, Styrofoam cones, to await the spring. Great things were expected, though I thought the white cones made the garden look silly.
Although the job was complete and Mr. Cappatelli had been paid, he seemed to like to come by during the off-time of winter and tweak the positioning of the flat, topmost stones, and also to anxiously regard the doings of frost heaves down by the footing, and perhaps to quietly gloat over his accomplishment, (and lastly, I suspected, to be invited in for a drink).
He was a very strong man, pushing forty, with curly black hair and a flashing white smile. He was not as tall as me but very muscular, with massive arms twice as thick as mine. What was most intimidating about him was his habit of looking you squarely in the in the eye with his big arms folded. No one called him “Raphael”. Even when he smiled I tended to look away.
I looked away as the burly man folded his arms and flashed a grin, stating, “Well Mort, looks like you got better help than those puny runts you usually hire.”
“Aye-yup, but ’tain’t hired. This’s boss’s son.”
“Really!” That was all Mr. Cappetelli said, as he scrutinized me from head to toe. Then he turned to Mort, “The boss has invited us in for a snort of hooch. Will you be joining us?”
“I may drop in t’ chat, but my daughtah’s comin’ by with grandkids, so I think I’ll steeah cleah of booze.” After a pause he added, “And boss tends to twist the wrist ‘n’ tip the lip far ‘n’ long.”
“Oh, he’s liberal all right” agreed Mr. Cappetelli as we passed. Both men seemed to find my stepfather’s trait a virtue.
I lifted the heavy toolboxes into the back of Mort’s battered pickup and hoisted the aluminum ladder to an odd roof-rack made of wood, thinking the ladder looked too modern for the truck. Mort was petting our two black dogs, opining about whether the winter would remain mild, (though it didn’t seem mild to me), and I talked about the jet-stream. Weather was one thing I could talk knowledgeably about. After Mort expertly roped the ladder to the roof we headed in, “to pay owah respects”, as Mort put it.
I had to pass through the kitchen and dining-room to the stair down to the laundry in the basement. I did so slowly, taking in the warm atmosphere. Mr. Cappetelli had already made it in, through the back entrance, and my stepfather was already making him an Old Fashioned. Slim and Tubs were also there with two women I didn’t know but assumed were their wives, along with Grubby Douglas and an elderly woman I recognized as the postmistress. Everyone seemed to be talking at once and laughing a lot. My stepfather gestured towards Mort silently with a big half-gallon of Old Crow, pointing at a glass invitingly, and Mort shook his head and laughed, “Thanks but no thanks. If I had one I’d need six, and my grandkids are comin’ by for dinnah.” I slowed slightly, thinking my stepfather might invite, but just then my mother loudly informed me, “Your psychologist called. I gave him the phone number for the little cottage.”
To me it seemed the room became instantaneously quieter and that everyone regarded me curiously, except for Slim, who took a step back and bit a knuckle. I lost all interest in staying, nodded to my mother with a smile, and continued on to the laundry. I imagine my face became quite different the moment I was out of eyeshot.
I was fuming. Why did she have to use the words “your psychologist?” Any other time she’d say “Audley Bine called”. Was she trying to make me look like some sort of dorkus? Irritated, I seethed with absurd rage when my clothes weren’t in the washing machine. Rather than being thankful that my mother had put them in the drier I was angry that they had cooled before they were folded. Was she trying to make me look all wrinkly when I applied for work? I turned the drier back on with a self righteous twist of the dial, folded my arms, and sneered down long avenues of idiocy as I waited.
It wasn’t until I shouldered through the door of the little cottage with my arms full of laundry that I came to my better senses, because my eyes fell on a motto under a picture the size of a credit card, taped to the fridge.
I had taped the picture onto the fridge as one of the first things I did upon entering the house, though it was a picture I took a fair amount of grief for. One friend told me he thought Meher Baba looked like he could make a good pizza. Another asked me what city he was mayor of. Yet I taped the picture up because I was rough and tough and didn’t need the encouragement of my peers. Also I found it hard to be crabby looking at it. On this occasion, however, it made my shoulders sag slightly.
I walked through the tiny kitchen into a surprisingly large living room, which held a bureau that smelled vaguely of Allison because the bedroom, which also smelled of Allison, was so tiny it belonged in a train. The living-room also held a small wardrobe because the bedroom was too small for a true closet, though it had a flat cabinet you might hang a shirt sideways in. As I hung my four shirts in the wardrobe, which smelled vaguely of seaweed, I muttered to myself, “I can’t believe I let Mom do it to me again”. Then I smirked and mimicked her voice in fallsetto, ” ‘My psychologist’. ‘My psychologist’ Why’d she say that? Audley hasn’t been my psychologist for a year, but with the postmistress there the whole frickin’ town will gab. But…but…but what the hell do I care what anyone thinks?”
Of course it was right then the telephone rang, and of course it was Audley Bine. Instead of “Hello” he said, “Why the hell didn’t you call me!”
“Call you? Was I suppose to call you?”
“That was the message I gave your mother.”
“You did? All she told me was that she’d given you my number.”
There was a long pause, and then he said, “Oh.”
Audley was becoming a bit of a pain. I spent more and more time listening to his problems and complaints, as he grew more and more impatient with mine. If anyone paid anyone for being a psychologist, he should have been paying me; I’d long since stopped paying him, and therein lay a problem.
I had worked for Audley, and it seemed to me that, although perhaps a trainee should pay for the training he receives, that should stop when the trainee is trained; then he should be paid for the work he does. Audley’s problem seemed to be that he wanted to keep being paid, and didn’t like to pay, though he could become quite angry when I told him so. I had become like an apprentice who has become a skilled journeyman, and wants to set up a shop on his own.
Not that I wanted to do what Audley did. He was a idealist who was forever collecting groups of followers and attempting to create a perfect society, but they all tended to be communes that crashed and burned. Being associated with him was a sort of roller coaster ride which I initially found inspiring, (when I believed the communes might succeed), and still found fascinating, (though I suspected his latest commune was failing).
Audley and I had a swift and somewhat brusque conversation. I learned the commune was in crisis, which didn’t surprise me, for that tends to be what you get when you form a commune of people in need of psychological help. Audley wanted to “seize the bull by the horns” and demanded I come down for a “group session”. He could be a bit of a bully when in his go-getter mood, and refused to take “no” for an answer. My problem was that I couldn’t lie. When I told him I was broke and couldn’t afford gas, he asked if I was really broke, I confessed I had $6.35 to my name. Audley did some quick calculating. Gas was 56 cents a gallon in 1975, and my tiny Toyota got 31 miles a gallon. I could drive to Newton and back to Maine for four bucks. What was I so worried about? I needed to get away from my mother’s worrying, because…
I cut him short, because I was in no mood to be psychologically dissected like some sort of frog. We shifted to the topic of whether I should be looking for work rather than saving a sinking commune, and Audley pointed out tomorrow was Sunday and Sunday was not a good day to find work, so I might as well go for a drive. Next I protested I could do no good, and at this point Audley shifted to wheedling. I couldn’t stand that. I didn’t want to hear how I was a “moderating influence” when I didn’t feel moderate, but in the end I caved,
The surprise-ending for this chapter is that I don’t end it by applying for work in a sail loft, but heading south towards the suburbs of Boston. When it came to procrastination, I was a master.
Actually I’ll begin the next chapter roaring south after dark on the Maine Turnpike in a tiny, tinny Toyota that screamed like a deranged sewing machine at seventy mph, for a night highway is a good place to contemplate the phenomenon of Audley Bine. I’ll conclude this chapter with me dashing into my mother’s kitchen and making myself an instant coffee at the boiling-water tap at her kitchen sink, for the drive down.
The party was still going on, but I figured I should tell my mother my plans. “Heading down to Boston. Lights are off, and heat’s down to fifty-five, in the little cottage. Be back tomorrow.” I tried to dart out the door and not see I had aged her ten years.
Slim was a man of around forty who I knew forty years ago when I lived up on the coast of Maine. He was skinny but strong; wore unfashionable glasses with thick, brown rims; had light brown hair graying at his temples, greased back like Elvis; chain-smoked; had a leathery, tanned face; and had the sort of pointed jaw, missing mass in the cheeks, that made me wonder if he had any molars left to pull, though it was hard to tell, for he hardly ever opened his mouth. I hung on his every word, which was easy to do, for he rarely spoke any. I know he had some coffee-stained front teeth, for he occasionally would grin helplessly, despite his shyness. Usually he was smiling due to the palaver of a fellow he worked with named Tubs, who was Slim’s opposite: Short, round, balding, jolly and very talkative. The two men seemingly had only one thing in common: They were hard workers, able to take on a wide variety of jobs and complete them with speed and skill.
I think I first saw the two men working in 1974. It was a simple job, delivering my mother a pick-up truck load of firewood. I admired the speed of their unloading. It took less than five minutes. Slim never touched the logs, because he used a couple of small hooks with wooden handles, specialized tools I have never seen anyone own or use since.
The two men worked like it was some sort of race, with the musically clopping logs flowing off the tailgate of the truck like water. They never needed to stop for a break because they completed the job so swiftly, nor did they grunt and grimace as if it was some big effort. As they worked Tubs was telling some story and Slim was nodding and smiling. Then they saw me watching and immediately became suspicious.
This was to be expected. In 1974 the Vietnam War wasn’t over, and I had long hair. Slim had seen action serving in Korea, some twenty years earlier. In fact some of his shyness may have been due to post-traumatic stress. I imagined my long hair automatically made me be an unpatriotic draft-dodger in his eyes, which made communication between us difficult.
The irony of the situation was that I was not what my long-hair suggested; I had unexpectedly broken my connection with the so-called “counter culture”, and perhaps was in some ways more conservative than Slim, and certainly more conservative than Tubs.
I had not intended to become conservative. I had started out by doing the expected and the acceptable (to hippies) things hippies did: Hitchhiking long distances; joining some loose confederations and cults called “communes”; becoming involved in (and eventually repulsed by) unsavory adventures involving sex and drugs; and, as a sort of conclusion, traveling to India to seek “enlightenment”. (The “Beatles” did it, Peter Townsend of the “Who” did it, and Melanie Safka did it when she was disillusioned).
To be blunt, “enlightenment”, as I then envisioned it, was a sort of Disney-world hallucination lacking the harshness and schizophrenia of LSD’s. I had somewhat vague hopes that some door would open in my forehead, and I would be swept into an experience of shimmering colors and lights, resulting in bliss. Others claimed they’d had such experiences. I hadn’t, and to be honest I really was uncertain where I was going or what I was after, as I headed to India. All I was really sure of was that I didn’t want to work a Real Job.
Instead of visions, or a meeting with any sort of con-artist-guru who promised such things, I had the good fortune to blunder into somewhat boring “good advice”, from the disciples of Meher Baba. (Meher Baba stated he was the Avatar.) Largely the advise they gave was not the sort that would get me out of working a Real Job, so I was not all that gratified.
For example, they stated I should not neglect “attending to my worldly responsibilities,” which initially sounded OK, because I felt a poet’s “responsibility” was to nibble an eraser, gaze dreamily at the sky, and avoid getting a Real Job. Then they seemed to suggest such behavior was deemed “responsible” only if God permitted such behavior to pay my bills, (via hard work, and also fate or “karma”). This amendment soured me slightly, though I kept my opinions to myself. Yet their advise was delivered in such a lovingly down-to-earth manner that I found myself not caring all that much about the subjects we discussed, and instead admiring their down-to-earth delivery. I started to think being down-to-earth might actually be a good thing, and not necessarily be unimaginative “conformity” and a sign I was a “square”.
I must have been a very odd American for the disciples of Meher Baba to have to deal with. Here I had traveled half-way around the world, yet I asked no questions. Somehow I felt asking questions was disrespectful. So I just observed, and kept my questions to myself. I was scheduled to visit for two weeks, but my TWA ticket allowed me to delay my departure, so I kept delaying, and observing. After nearly three months I headed home, because I knew my family and especially my mother would be upset if I skipped Christmas. Also I was flat broke and had run out of people to borrow from. Now I look back and want to slap my forehead, because I asked so few questions, but at the time it was just the way I was, namely a three-letter word: “Shy”.
Because I never asked for advice I can’t say I ever received any, per se. Perhaps I did hear others ask questions I felt were rude to ask, and listened intently to the answers they received. But largely the “advice” I received was contained in the “example” Meher Baba’s disciples set.
I think what impressed me most was that the followers of Meher Baba were not “groupies”, like hippies tended to be. Perhaps hippies were dead set against wearing uniforms, but they tended to be copy-cats and “uniform” in other ways. For example the “Dead-heads” (fans of the rock-group “The Grateful Dead”) agreed about certain things, and if you veered from their “norm” they could be disagreeable. They tended to be birds of a feather who flocked together. The disciples of Meher Baba, on the other hand, were strikingly individualistic, definitely not birds-of-a-feather. They were as different as different could be, yet strangely not in conflict. How was this possible?
That was the question I should have asked, but was too shy to ask. It was on my mind because I had witnessed hippy communes, made up of very similar and on-the-same-page people, disintegrate over minuscule differences tantamount to straws that could not even break a field mouse’s back, let alone a camel’s. How could Meher Baba’s disciples manage what hippies could not? But I never asked, and instead observed.
Meher Baba himself had died nearly five years earlier, on January 31, 1969, yet it was obvious his influence was still profound. However I was not satisfied with “influence” alone. I didn’t want to only see the sunburned people after the Sun had set. I wanted to see the Sun. I suppose I was like Doubting Thomas, refusing to believe in Christ until he himself could finger the wounds on a risen Christ’s hands.
I was not gifted with Thomas’s experiences, and it was frustrating to me, for I constantly met people who had experienced a “risen” Meher Baba.
There was some event called “The Last Darshan” that Meher Baba had been planning-for, scheduled between April and June, 1969, which you might think would have been cancelled when he inconveniently died in January. But people went ahead and the event was held, and the people (from all over the world) who attended the event stated Meher Baba was present in spirit, and that all sorts of amazing stuff happened. However I was not informed and did not attend and wasn’t a witness. I was not gifted with such grand experiences.
In some ways I am like the dour man from Missouri who always says, “Prove it”. I demand certainty. Even back at age twenty-one I had too often been played for the fool, too often been the laughable sucker and embarrassing chump, and I’d be damned if I’d allow it to happen to me again. But I received no countering certainty or “proof”, in terms of supernatural events.
This is not to say I didn’t own a private, secret, inner world, nor didn’t have intimate, muttered conversations with God. I just didn’t hear answers delivered in a booming baritone. My personal “miracles” tended to be coincidences, such as a butterfly landing on my nose, or a certain song coming on the radio, which couldn’t withstand determined cynicism. My “visions” were dismissable as being the result of an overly active imagination; the same psychologists who were amazed at my ability to “free-associate” completely shredded any hopes I might have that my fantasized images might mean something positive. They subjected my poetry to a sort of ruthless cross-examination, hyper-analyzing every symbol, supposedly to increase my self-awareness, but in fact increasing my doubtfulness. In the long run the awareness I developed was that I should keep such thoughts to myself. Rather than making me more outgoing psychology hardened my fortress of shyness.
All the same, hanging around Meher Baba’s disciples was a deeply moving experience. Perhaps people-who-were-highly-individualistic-and-different-yet-who-managed-to-lovingly-get-along struck me as a bit “supernatural”, in its own right. After all, my own parents were brilliant, charming, and in some ways very similar people, but got a divorce. And the political “hawks” and “doves” of the USA were not getting along, and the so-called “alternative” hippy lifestyles were crashing and burning everywhere I looked. Meher Baba’s disciples were different. I saw, in these kindly and generous foreigners, an example I desired to follow, and people I wished to emulate, though I was highly individualistic in my own right, and couldn’t see how I could be a true “follower” of Meher Baba. One might say I was attracted, and perhaps a “follower-from-a-safe-distance”.
Oddest was the lack of “rules” they gave me to follow. The “good advice” lacked all the commandments which many scriptures make into an elaborate and detailed system of “laws”. In some ways I found this disturbing, for in some ways I was aware that the most productive times of my life had involved some sort of brutal drill sergeant demanding discipline and laying-down-the-law, whether the “drill sergeant” was a strict school’s headmaster, or an inanimate and savage storm at sea.
For the most part Meher Baba seemed to forego issuing commandments, and instead to merely describe the problems inherent within addiction-to-creation, and describe the benefits of escaping creation into the embrace of the Creator, without (in my view) mapping out what rules and laws one should obey during the transition. But I did gather, without asking any questions, two things which might be called “laws”, although they were “good advice.”
I should not take drugs and should not indulge in promiscuous sex.
Absorbing this good advice, and accepting it, put me at odds with my hippy peers. Though I was dreaming about harmony, I was plunged into opposition.
When I returned to the United States I discovered I didn’t fit in where I had once fit in. I wanted to share what I had glimpsed to the cult-like groups I was associated with, but seemed unable to find the right words. I didn’t want to reject anyone, but was inarticulate, and felt I had a very slow mouth among very fast talkers. After experiencing ridicule for suggesting sober, prudish, down-to-earth behavior might be wise, I felt hurt, rejected by my peers, and gradually began to search for a different society, where I might fit in.
Looking back, it seems it would have been for the best if I had made the separations swift and dramatic, and as complete as the separation between civilian life and boot-camp. But I was not a quitter, and always held out hope for improvement in relationships that, in truth, were withering away. Unfortunately this meant that, rather than removing a forearm-band-aid swiftly, I made it a long, slow, painful, hair-plucking, and drawn-out process.
To me it seemed loyal and faithful to give people who had in some way betrayed me a second and third chance to betray me. I prolonged my misery, for I felt forgiveness was spiritual, and was confused about when one should “shake the dust from your heels” and leave people in the past. I felt I should forgive people “seven-times-seventy times”, and consequently handed “my pearls to swine”. Last but not least, I was in some ways atrociously arrogant, and it was inconceivable to me that others wouldn’t realize how marvelous I (or at least my poetry) was, understand the enormous error of their ways, and profusely apologize. I felt that, if I only was forgiving long enough, they would mend their ways. “Someday they’ll be sorry.”
It didn’t happen, but I am getting ahead of myself. At age twenty-one I was still full of optimism, and assumed I was moving to Maine only for a brief time. I felt I needed to retreat and regroup, and “get my head on straight,” but imagined that soon my self-imposed isolation would resolve into happy reconciliations and reunions, and the “communes” would become new-and-improved, and we would all stride forward together into the bright uplands of happy-ever-after. (My prediction was that world-wide crises would come to a climax in five or six years, around 1980, and happy-ever-after would happen soon afterwards.)
In some ways I was expectantly waiting for cold stones to get up and warmly dance around singing, and such situations are bound to become frustrating, as you wait, and wait, and wait. Worst is the simple fact that patience of this sort doesn’t pay a positive dividend, but rather one starts to see a sort of rot set in. “All things come to they who wait”, but the best lumber turns into punk if it sits unused. It is through action that spiritual truths are revealed. I was just beginning the process of learning this Truth the hard way, when I moved to Maine.
In conclusion, I was not the typical “long-hair” Slim and Tubs thought I was. I was an ex-hippy with a newfound respect for the down-to-earth, and Slim and Tubs were the very sort of down-to-earth people I respected, but they felt zero affinity towards the likes of me.
Actually an odd affinity did exist, because Slim and I were both very shy, though I suppose Slim would have been horrified (and perhaps even insulted) if anyone suggested there was any sort of similarity between the two of us. He had worked and paid his way since he was sixteen, whereas I mooched off my mother.
I didn’t actually live in my mother’s basement. My step-father had bought a lovely piece of property overlooking the ocean to retire upon, which had two smaller cottages a short ways down a steep hill from the main house, and then, down an even steeper embankment, a dock, and on the dock was a shack. The moment I laid eyes on the shack I felt it was perfect for a poet. It was a lovely abode, (when the weather was warm), but in the eyes of Slim and Tubs living there merely made me a shiftless layabout mooching off his mother.
I tended to sleep late, because I usually had stayed up late the night before writing. I had strong legs and good lungs, and, clutching a tall, oversized, bright-orange coffee cup, would sprint up the staircase from the dock and jog up a steep drive to my mother’s house, to take advantage of the fact her kitchen had an extra faucet that delivered boiling water. This skipped the bother of waiting for water to boil in my shack (which did have electricity.) I’d stir instant coffee and four spoons of sugar and cream into my oversized cup, and often was back down in the shack at my typewriter within minutes. I’d guzzle the coffee, and often sprint back up to my mother’s house only an hour later.
Because I was so addicted to caffeine, my visits were frequent, and from time to time I’d barge into my mother’s kitchen as she had coffee with various people. (The kitchen opened into a dining-room with a beautiful view.) On such occasions I felt it was rude not to pause briefly and pretend to be sociable for at least as long as it took to smoke a cigarette. (Smoking inside was commonplace back then.) Once in a while the persons my mother was having coffee with were Slim and Tubs.
Some women of wealth have an egalitarian streak, or perhaps a mere curiosity, which has them inviting the hired help into elegant dining rooms and serving them coffee from expensive china. I have often been flattered by such generosity, in my own time as a gardener and handyman, and have always tried to reciprocate by being polite, (and as witty and charming as I dare), and asking questions and nodding at the replies. Back in 1974 I knew far less about being “hired help”, and was fascinated by Slim and Tubs holding coffee cups with their pinkies raised, and chatting comfortably with my mother.
My mother was amazing when it came to making people comfortable, which at times made me uncomfortable. Certain aspects of her hospitality didn’t seem entirely honest. For example, she spoke with an elegant English accent, when in fact she was a poor girl who had grown up in a broken home in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. A few times when, as a teenager, I had pushed my luck with the good woman, I had heard that English accent completely vanish, and in surprise had backed away from a fierce Fitchburg wench whom no gentle poet would ever want to mess with.
Despite the fact I was aware there was a side of my mother she did not expose to the general public, I clung to the incongruous and childish belief she was innocent and saintly. For example, I assumed hippies knew more about sex, although my mother had given birth to six children. For another example, I felt hippies were more “experienced” because they had taken LSD, although hippies had amnesia about what they glimpsed when drugged, while my mother remembered with vivid clarity, and had 29 more actual years of actual experience than I had. There is something audaciously comical about youth deeming their elders naive, but I felt my mother was naive and needed my protection.
Not that I had a clue of the wheeling and dealing that was occurring beneath the polite chit-chat, as my mother had coffee with Slim and Tubs. The two men were to some degree on the lookout for a rich lady who would supply them with their next paycheck, and she was on the lookout for local, Maine-Yankee carpenters who could do good work for a tenth of what an interior designer from Boston would charge. I had no idea such skullduggery was involved. I assumed they were above-board and up-front. To be honest, I was incapable of protecting my mother from tricky salesmen, and equally incapable of protecting Slim and Tubs from tricky Moms, because I myself was living in the clouds of idealism.
One cold,January morning in 1975 I came bopping into her kitchen, rumpled and yawning, with my tall, orange cup, and discovered them deeply involved in a discussion about maple wood. The low winter sun was flashing through winter clouds, slanting in through a window that showed a beautiful view of a harbor.
They didn’t look out the window, for the view was old to them, and instead they sat midst sunlit blue curls and wisps of cigarette smoke, intently discussing kitchen counters.
I quickly determined my mother didn’t like the orange Formica counters on the island between the kitchen and dining room, and wanted to replace them with maple. She didn’t want straight-grained maple, neither the creamy sapwood nor the buttery heartwood, and desired a grain less uniform, with “character.” Therefore they were discussing the prices of bird’s-eye, burl, and fiddle-back maple boards, all of which were expensive and made my mother look very disappointed and vaguely critical. As they spoke Tubs did most of the talking, sitting back and expansively ruminating with a jovial and optimistic expression, deferring to Slim when my mother wanted prices. Slim sat hunched forward with his hands folded as if he was praying, for the most part nervously smiling and nodding as Tubs spoke, but occasionally barking the prices of maple boards of various types in an authoritative way, at which point my mother would scratch out calculations on a yellow, legal notebook on the dining-room table, coming up with answers that she looked at with disapproval. Then they apparently arrived at some sort of insurmountable quandary, at which point Tubs sat even further back, locked his fingers behind his neck as a pillow, and looked out the window with deep seriousness, his face unusually grave, as if determining the fate of nations. Then his face lit up and he turned towards my mother with an unspoken idea. At the same point Slim winced slightly, and shrunk down a half inch, as if silently willing Tubs to keep his big mouth shut, but Tubs spoke.
Apparently there was a sort of sugar-maple lumber which not many people knew about. It came from a maple tree near the end of its life, when the growth rings became skinny but before the rot set in and the wood became punky in places, and therefore became unusable. Slim had a word for it. (I want to say “checkered maple”, but search-engines produce no such word.) It was typically light yellow maple wood, but had dark, broad veins of deep brown and even black running through it. When a sawmill sliced up a maple log which produced such boards they tended to cast them aside as relatively worthless, though the planks were solid. Tubs knew where he could get such boards for next to nothing. He wondered if he could bring some boards by, for my mother to look at, to see what she thought of the unusual coloring.
My mother looked intrigued. She always liked being unique, and I could tell she liked the concept of having kitchen counters unlike anyone else’s. She also liked the price. She looked out the window thoughtfully. Tubs smiled serenely. Slim chewed his fingernails as if the suspense was killing him. Then my mother turned to Tubs and said she was very interested in seeing what such maple boards looked like. Tubs nodded and smilingly said he’d bring some boards by. Slim sagged from stiff tension to palatable relief. Then the topic turned to the molding up where the wall met the ceiling, and I headed back down to the shack with my coffee, toying with a poetic idea involving maple planks, which I thought I might insert into a long poem I was laboring on.
The year was not 1829, and I was no Alfred Tennyson. There was absolutely zero market for long poems in 1975, but I thought I could create one. I fostered this illusion because my hippy friends spent hours listening to record albums (video games hadn’t been invented). We would sit and listen to a just-released album together, and have long discussions about what the songs meant. Sometimes, rather than spending an hour listening to an album, I would read them a long poem. (As I recall such readings came about due to a particularly enthusiastic friend demanding I do it, and had nothing to do with me overcoming my shyness and “selling myself”.)
What then happened was extremely gratifying, for, rather than appearing bored stiff or stampeding to the door, people would listen with wide-eyed, rapt attention, laughing at all the right places and growing misty-eyed when I became maudlin. They urged me to write more, looked respectful and interested while I wrote, gathered around to listen when I announced I was done, and never once told me I should get a Real Job. Then, in India, I had written a long story-poem in a wonderfully inspired fit, and it was well-received among total strangers when I read it to them. Due to this encouragement I had the idea I could sell my long poems, if not as printed pages, then as record albums (because people liked the sound of my reading voice.)
But by retreating to Maine I had cut myself off from such encouragement, and I found myself fighting “writer’s block”. I didn’t like admitting I needed encouragement, seeing such a desire as a weakness, as being susceptible-to and swayed-by flattery, but it was obvious that I craved attention. Isolation left me feeling marginalized, ostracized because I had changed my attitude towards sex and drugs, and a sense of profound loneliness descended and began staining my inspiration with gray.
I fought this bleakness with all my might, for most of my poems were in one way or another about how life is brimming with beauty, and I intended them all to be pep-talks for the disillusioned. For example, I might write about a person depressed because their garden was full of weeds, and then describe a friend showing up and weeding with them, turning the dreary task into a rapture about botany, and bugs, and the beauty of cumulus and sunshine and sweat, until weeding seemed like a delight people would pay for, (the way people pay to labor and sweat in a gym.)
The poem I was currently struggling with was called “Armor”, and was based on the premise that people become so emotionally hurt, through undergoing traumatic experiences, that they psychologically don protective armor that makes them clank around clumsily in emotional steel, incapable of touching-with and being touched-by love.
The plot involved two old knights who had died in battle. One then reincarnates as a innocent child with no armor. Because the child has a new brain he has amnesia about past pain, but while wandering dreamily in a garden behind his childhood home he finds a doorway in time, and goes through it and meets his old friend, who still has his armor on and is refusing to be born again. The two then get into an argument about whether or not it is worthwhile being born again, and that is where my imagination ground to a halt.
I tried to force myself to finish the poem with sheer willpower, but had “lost the thread”. The plot refused to go the direction I intended. The old knight with armor was a real sourpuss, but he came up with excellent reasons not to be born, while the boy came across as a bit of a twerp, and his logic was lame. I grew frustrated, whereupon the boy in the poem lost his temper and seemed on the verge of putting armor back on and….and…and where the bleep was my poem headed? The poem started to disintegrate into seemingly pointless sidetracks; for example, I might find myself writing about planks made of maple trees, and how the grain of wood changes as the rot sets in.
Frustrated, I crumpled up a page and trudged moodily back up the hill with my orange coffee up. Tubs and Slim were up by the street, leaving, and I could see them regarding me from afar. Tubs was saying something to Slim, nudging him, and Slim was shaking his head sadly. I didn’t imagine they sympathized with the agony of an artist. As they drove off I felt very alone. Inside the house my mother was smoking and pouring over the numbers on her yellow, legal notepad and looking pleased, and, as an aside, without even looking up at me, asked me to drive to the Post Office and pick up the mail. Our postbox was only a half mile away, but I managed to play self-pitiful violins during the drive. Then, in the mail, I saw a light blue airmail letter addressed to me, from India.
I felt a surge of hope. I can’t really say what I was expecting for I wasn’t expecting such a letter. I suppose the simple fact a blue letter had appeared out of the blue suggested I was going to be recognized in some manner. I tore the letter open, and my hope immediately crashed. Indeed I was recognized, but what was recognized was $50.00 I owed.
I was hit by shame. The debt I owed was utterly different from owing a hippy $50.00. Several hippies owed me $50.00, (which was one reason I was flat broke), but I didn’t think it was a big deal. In hippy terms, in 1974, $50.00 was what you made washing dishes for half a week. Minimum wage was $2.00 an hour, (worth roughly $11.00 now, in 2020). But one thing that I had been shocked by in India was the huge disparity in standards-of-living between “them” and “us”.
I became aware being poor in that land meant working for roughly a penny an hour, though there didn’t seem to be a “minimum wage.” Many seemed to subsist on an income so small they could only buy one meal a day. It gave, “Give us this day our daily bread” a far more poignant meaning. However when they sat down for this “bread”, (often a pancake of millet flour called a chapatti, with a gravy made of lentils called “daal”,) they seemed far happier than hippies managed to be, though hippies ate far more.
It is embarrassing to owe money to a person in a “third world nation”. I handed my mother her mail without mentioning my disgrace, and headed back to my shack forgetting to refill my coffee cup. As I slumped by my typewriter my poem “Armor” seemed pointless. It seemed worse than pointless. After all, of what concern are the problems of a couple of imaginary and dead knights named “Siegfried” and “Heinrich”, to the people of India? I had no excuse for failing to repay the money I owed. All the excuses I used, (which other artists had taught me to utilize on Americans), became utterly hollow when I tried to use them on people who suffer under hot sun for a penny an hour. The people of India didn’t need some ridiculous poem. They needed $50.00. And this meant I needed to work a Real Job.
Worst was the fact the repayment was needed immediately. I glanced around the shack for something I could sell, but I really didn’t own much of value besides my car. I had a pile of LP albums, but no record player. Beyond that I had nothing but old clothes, books and papers. In fact, as I looked around, my entire life seemed more or less worthless.
I saw it wouldn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out the shack wasn’t inhabited by an illiterate clam-digger, and rather by some sort of intellectual. I always felt a clean desk was the sign of a lazy mind, and had six projects going on concurrently, but now they seemed like six silly ways of avoiding the fact I was doing nothing: The busy-work of a man suffering solitary confinement.
My interest in meteorology was demonstrated by notes of the daily readings of my max-min thermometer, and a graph of these readings as opposed to the average, with the time above-normal carefully shaded red and the time below-normal shaded blue. There were also numerous New York Times weather maps (far better then than they are now) clipped from my stepfather’s discarded papers and taped in chronological order on the wall. But what was the use of an avocation without a vocation?
There were also a few charts clipped from newspapers on the desk showing unemployment was rising to 10% in Maine as the Gross National Product crashed 84 billion dollars in the past year. I had an interest in economics, and had even passed my English university-level “A level exams” in economics (due to two terms frantically cramming under the tutelage of a pleasantly mad teacher in Scotland), but I had no clue how to turn such knowledge from an avocation to a vocation. However it did remind me to turn on my battered, crackling radio to listen to the noontime financial report.
I tried to forget my problems and focus on the news. They called the crashing GNP “stagflation” because prices were soaring even as economic growth slowed. It seemed obvious to me prices would soar, considering the Arab Oil Embargo had doubled the price of oil, but the snooty experts on the radio looked everywhere but at the obvious. One fellow stated that the government’s efforts to “stimulate” the economy made people buy bonds rather than investing in businesses, pointing at the component of GNP called “investment”, which had fallen to barely more than half of what it had been. Another fellow blamed women for getting fed up with being home-makers, and joining the work-force in such droves that it shrank wages and increased unemployment. A third fellow blamed “jittery” investors, because the communists in Vietnam seemed unlikely to abide by the terms of the peace-treaty Nixon and Mao worked at, with Nixon now disgraced and Mao now drooling at death’s door. The only good news was that exports, a minor component of GNP, had shot upwards. This was especially good news for coastal areas like Maine, but I shut the radio off, suddenly struck by the utter worthlessness of contemplating billions of dollars when I couldn’t even come up with fifty. Ordinarily I’d be intrigued by President Ford’s idea that tax-cuts might end the “stagflation”, but of what use are tax cuts when you make no money, and therefore pay no taxes?
My eyes roamed further along the desk to an absurd chart I had devised to better control my moods. It was based on my feeling that modern psychology was pathetic and in need of drastic improvements, and also on the then-popular idea of “biorhythms”. I was attempting to chart my inner weather the same way I charted the weather outside, thinking that, if I knew what my moods would be before they happened, I’d be better able to handle them; I’d be one step ahead; I’d have an umbrella if the forecast was rain. Now it all seemed worthless. You cannot predict the weather with perfect certainty, nor the economy with perfect certainty, nor your moods with perfect certainty, but one thing was perfectly certain: I needed fifty dollars.
I thrashed in irritation, and my eyes next chanced upon five separate volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica and a novel from the local library. My stepfather had noticed the five holes in his bookshelf, and had asked me to return the encyclopedias the night before, and also I could not afford even library fines when flat broke. With a sigh I prepared to gathered the books up and embark upon the journey back up the hill. Hell if I had time to pursue historical research, if I had to get a Real Job, but merely thinking that thought paused me yet again.
I glanced out the window at the harbor, thinking of how my mind always got sidetracked. I had two catagories for this sidetracking in the “mental activity” of my “biorhythms” chart, and I swiftly jotted a 1.25 in the “wondering” column and a .75 in the “wandering” column. Then I laid my hands on the pile of books without picking them up, thinking how my “research” had sprung from a visit Slim and Tubs paid after a prior job.
Both my mother and stepfather loved books, but when they first moved into their new home the inner living room wall only held two garish pictures, and a small table between them with a garish vase. My parents wanted the entire wall turned into floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and my stepfather wanted a wall of his study made the same. Enter Slim and Tubs. After they were done they dropped by for a small, final payment, which could have been mailed, but they’d rather have coffee in the process of being paid. (Considering how cozy the local diner was, they were flattering my mother greatly by preferring her coffee, though they may have also been on the lookout for future employment).
Outside the landscape had been shuddering under the first arctic blast of winter, and Tubs came in overdressed as Slim entered as if he didn’t notice the cold. Tubs wore a very puffy parka that made him all the rounder, a sheepskin “mad bomber” hat with enormous ear-flaps down to his shoulders, and a gaudy scarf of a crimson plaid. Slim wore a baseball cap, a plaid shirt, and had his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his jeans. Perhaps his plaid shirt was a bit thicker than usual, but my mother exclaimed, “Poor soul! You must be frozen!” Slim smiled, but Tubs teased, “After minus forty on Chosin Reservoir, zero seems like a heat wave, to Slim.” Slim winced and shot Tubs an irritated glance, and my mother looked surprised, and then adopted a sympathetic expression that confused me. I couldn’t read the Greek on their faces. I should have asked some questions, but instead I was shy.
I retreated, and got the “K” encyclopedia to look up “Korean War” and see if I could find a mention of the “Chosin Reservoir”. It would have been far easier to simply ask Slim, as he’d been there, an actual eyewitness, but shyness made me into a parody of Sherlock Holmes, sleuthing when it was unnecessary.
Now such private-detectiving can be done via the internet. If you are too shy to talk to actual humans you can sleuth with the click of a mouse. But back in 1974-1975 I had to run up and down a hill, sleuthing with volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and then visit the local library, employing the Dewy Decimal System and card catalogs to discovered an obscure history that likely never sold many copies, with some name I can’t remember, (such as “The Chosin Few”).
What I discovered was a wonderful way to sidetrack; engrossing historical trivia which made it hard to be practical, and easy to forget to put wood in the shack’s stove until I noticed my nose was getting cold. Not that I would have discovered much, within the Encyclopedia Britannica. There were things not mentioned in the “K” volume that I found in the “C” volume, under “Cochin Reservoir”, and things not mentioned in the “C” volume that were mentioned in the three subsequent volumes I browsed, but I always had more questions than answers. The obscure autobiography from the local library was a wealth of information buried midst atrocious writing, but if I wanted better I surely should have interviewed Slim, but I was too shy.
In school the Korean War had been described as a “conflict” and a “stalemate”, which made it sound like nothing had been achieved, and even as if nothing had happened. Midst the drab facts of the encyclopedia I saw drab dots, but I could connect the dots, and saw that, as always, war was hell. Through that hell Slim, as a teenager, once walked.
To me the leaders on both sides appeared to be a bunch of idiots, with the UN particularly moronic in terms of gathering intelligence, and Mao particularly moronic in terms of logistics. For example, the UN forces had marched victoriously from the very south to the very north, and assumed they were “mopping up” the final North Korean troops. They even named a maneuver “Operation Home-By-Christmas.” But in fact they were facing 120,000 Chinese troops. Yet Mao, in his haste to prove Chinese could fight better than Europeans, proved Chinese leaders could be equally stupid as Europeans, (though perhaps not quite as stupid as the English at Verdun), for he sent 120,000 of his finest troops south without food and in summer clothing. The cold swiftly killed more of his best men than the UN forces did.
The plight of the foot soldiers on both sides was extreme. At minus forty nothing worked right. Batteries failed and tanks wouldn’t start and walkies-talkies went dead and diesel fuel turned to jelly and guns jammed. Confusion reined on both sides. (One drab phrase from the encyclopedia seemed especially lacking in compassion to me: “Failed to fortify their positions.” It may have been factual, but failed in its own right to comprehend the desperate extremes both sides faced.)
At one point the starving and freezing Chinese troops overran a UN base, and logically assumed the hugely outnumbered and routed UN troops would be hightailing it south. What they didn’t understand was that the UN didn’t understand. Rather than seeing they had been attacked by a huge army, the UN thought the attack was the deeds of desperate North Koreans near the end of their rope. If the Chinese were noted it was assumed they were only a few “advisers”. Therefore the tiny force counter-attacked the huge force, and found the Chinese had “failed to fortify their positions”. Why not? Because they were doing what men do when at their wits end and on the verge of starving and freezing to death: They were rummaging through captured supplies for warm clothing and food. Many had dropped their guns; and they were as surprised by the counter-attack as the UN forces had been by the initial attack, and the rout became a counter-rout. But this then fostered the illusion among the UN forces that they should continue attacking north, when what they should have done is to use the snatched reprieve to swiftly organize a defended retreat south. In the fog of war they probed north, and they soon again met the might of superior numbers and a counter-counter-attack, and were overrun a second time. Units were encircled and cut off, unable to retreat south, with Chinese troops on all sides, and in one of these trapped units was Slim.
During the day the air was filled with the nearly constant droning, roaring and booming of American airplanes and jets, attacking from a base to the south and five aircraft carriers, but as the sun fell and the cold grew fierce all became quiet, and under the dim glow of flares Slim awaited the inevitable Chinese attacks. The dark had a nightmarish quality; you snatched sleep during the day. The encyclopedia showed neat lines and arrows of red and blue, but the battle was an extended melee, a derangement.
Just days before Slim had been patrolling northward through a landscape much like Maine’s, right down to the scattered wood-frame houses and long stretches of wilderness between towns. He was wary, and scared of snipers, but only heard shots and explosions far away. The weather was brisk and autumnal, and he’d been dreaming of being home by Thanksgiving, when suddenly weather colder than he had ever experienced and Chinese troops came storming down from the north.
A man never knows what he can do until he has to. Slim saw sides of himself he never knew existed: Horror, terror, grief, and the rage of a cornered rat. He saw bravery isn’t what you want to be, but what you have to be. But even more disconcerting was elation and hilarity midst all the horror, brotherhood midst bestiality.
One time Slim spotted two Chinese laying in ambush. He was uphill, but they were looking down as a patrol of Slim’s comrades crossed the slope further down. Slim raised his gun to shoot them, but the gun jammed in the bitter cold, so Slim drew his knife and crept up behind them, his pulse thudding in his ears. Then he realized they were frozen to death. Slim heard his own voice first giggle, then sob a single sob, and then growl to himself in the voice of a sergeant, “Keep moving, Private. Move!”
To bolster courage every other word became “fucking”. “Fucking get fucking ammo fucking fast!”
During hand-to-hand fighting airstrikes dropped napalm, and in he hellish heat some Americans roasted along with the Chinese, and a man cursed, “Fuck if I ever fucking pray to God to make it fucking warmer, ever fucking again”. For some insane reason midst insanity this sarcasm caused Slim’s squad to dissolve briefly in paroxysms of helpless laughter, before they all abruptly regained their grimness.
Surrender didn’t seem to be an option for either side. This went against the history of the Chinese warlords, who had tended to defect whenever it was to their advantage, as squads and even as entire divisions, both when fighting Japan and in their own Civil War. Now they fought to the final man, perhaps because Mao had executed the warlords and all were unified under him, or perhaps because his troops knew if they stopped moving they’d freeze, and prisoners would be forced to stand still. Meanwhile the Americans had seen or heard that Koreans were brutal to prisoners: The South Koreans slaughtered the North Koreans as predictably as the Communists “purged” the Non-Communists. The fighting was do-or-die, with the Chinese determined to bottle up and wipe out the UN forces, and with the UN (largely American) forces desperately attempting to break out and force their way south. Retreat was not a matter of backing up. One American officer famously stated, “We’re not retreating. We’re advancing in a new direction.”
Slim’s unit had been ordered to take a hill overlooking the road south, but it hadn’t gone well and they’d been driven back. Slim squinted south with the highway blocked, doubting he’d ever see home again. His gun didn’t shoot and his commanding officers were dead . Half of his unit was dead or wounded, and it was so cold the medics had to thaw the small tubes of morphine in their mouths before they injected the wounded. Many of the fellows he was with were teenagers like he was, eighteen and nineteen years old. What to do? Plan A hadn’t worked; what was plan B?
In this desperate moment Slim glanced sideways over the Chosin Reservoir. It reminded him of a big lake in Maine, and midst a tidal wave of melancholy and nostalgia he remembered ice fishing, and a little voice in his head wondered, “Is the ice safe for fishing yet?” Then he abruptly shrieked, “That fucking ice has got to be fucking thick. It’s been fucking colder than a fucking witch’s tit for fucking days.”
It’s unclear who gave the orders or whether there was any order at all. It simply seemed smarter to move out over the ice, which could hold even jeeps, and go around the Chinese rather than fighting through them. So that is what was done, with the wounded brought along, some walking wounded and some dragged. As the Chinese froze, laying in ambush along the road, hundreds and hundreds of troops escaped over the ice.
Arriving at a hastily-constructed airbase at the southern end of the reservoir, with more than half of his comrades dead (1450 of 2500) Slim was surprised to find himself one of the few judged “able bodied” (385), and while more than a thousand were helicoptered out he was assigned to hold the base’s perimeter along with cooks pulled from the kitchen and clerks yanked from their typewriters, as the marines retreated south from the other side of the reservoir, and reinforcing marines battled up from the south. Slim got to spend a week in this lovely landscape.
Rather than praise, Slim found his army unit belittled by the marines for retreating in a disorganized manner. Slim vowed to pound the heck out of the first marine he met in a bar, but the bars were far to the south, and first they had to break out of their base and fight south through “Hellfire Valley”. The Chinese three times blew up a bridge on the road south, but the engineers kept replacing it, supplied by “flying boxcars”.
If it were not for the Air Force they would have been overwhelmed, but in the end Slim made it to the port of Hungnam after two weeks of solid fighting, and then spent another two weeks defending the perimeter of that port as an evacuation like Dunkirk proceeded. The civilians had no desire to stay, and as Slim prepared to depart he saw 14,000 Koreans crowd aboard a cargo ship built to accommodate 12 passengers. (SS Meredith Victory) The next day, on Christmas Eve, Slim got to see North Korea astern, with massive fireworks occurring as the engineers blew up the entire port, so Mao couldn’t use it.
And now here I was, a quarter century later, and we were still fighting Mao, now in Vietnam. It had been going on since before I was born, and Slim had been there at the beginning, when Mao chose division over a United Korea.
I sighed and looked out over the mudflats. The tide was low. Even at winter you could smell the dead clams.
Actually, I mused, it had been longer than a quarter century. What year did Mao begin the Autumn Harvest Uprising? 1927? Nearly a half century ago. For nearly fifty years the drooling old man had been unable to make peace with his neighbors. For nearly fifty years he had been incapable of seeing any ideas but his own as worthy of anything but destruction. All traditions were his foe, all cultural variety was his foe, any power but his own was his foe, was “counter revolutionary”, and anyone outside was an “imperialist”. What an arrogant and paranoid madman! And what stopped his cancer from spreading? Shy teenagers like Slim.
If only people would, as John Lennon sang, “give peace a chance!” What a different world it would have been if people had chosen to get along, rather than choosing divorce, rather than choosing fifty years of murdering millions upon millions.
I shook my head and gathered up the books. Who was I to think I could solve the world’s problems? No one would pay a penny for my poetry, and I needed fifty dollars.
My mother shot me a curious look as I stomped into her house with a grim expression and began replacing the encyclopedias on the shelf. I was known for taking things out, and not for putting them away, so she knew something was up. However I was not about to tell her I needed fifty dollars. She’d fret, and I thought I’d rather face Chinese troops at forty below than face my mother’s worry.
As I drove to the library to return the book I pondered the fact that getting a Real Job would be admitting defeat, in terms of writing and being a poet. But Slim had been defeated at Chosin Reservoir, and it wasn’t the end of him, was it? I needed to adjust my attitude, and see my retreat was actually “advancing in a new direction.”