PUNKY WOOD –Part 6– –Splendor's End–

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?”

“Your brother”.

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.”

“There isn’t?”

“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?”

“Um…well…no…”

“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.”

“I did?”

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?”

I nodded.

“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.

PUNKY WOOD –Part 5– –The Trickster–

As I drove I-95 south through the New Hampshire night I had to shake my head, recalling what an amazing year 1969 was. In April, 1969 I’d been on the same highway, but over a thousand miles further south, hitchhiking to see my Grandparents in Florida. I came to a place where I-95 was not finished in southern swamps festooned with Spanish moss, and had to cut across country to where I rejoined another completed section of I-95 further south, traveling narrower and more curvy roads through a landscape of sharecropper’s hovels where plows were still pulled by mules. I was picked up by a battered, old, green Ford pickup holding a grizzled black farmer and his grandson. It was, (according to my diary), “ride eighteen” of the twenty-six it took to reach my grandparents, but in my memory it stood out as the best.

All the way south northern drivers had warned me about southerners and blacks and especially cops in Georgia, yet this was my second ride with black southerners. The first was three brothers who warned me to watch out for northerners and whites and especially cops in Georgia. (When I eventually was picked up by a cop in Georgia he kindly warned me to watch out for southerners, northerners, blacks and whites.) But the black farmer didn’t warn me about anything, and instead asked questions and told brief tales and laughed a lot. He’d been in the Army, years earlier, and knew not all white people were bad, and seemed to be trying to demonstrate this truth to his grandson, (who silently regarded me with round eyes, as if I was from Mars). But what I remember most is how quickly our nervousness melted to understanding and even friendship, though it was the brief friendship of a hitchhiker.

All twenty-six rides were like that, examples of people’s goodness and kindness, for even people’s distrustful warnings about others were a demonstration of their caring and concern for me. The world seemed full of beautiful people. In my memory the United States was bathed in some sort of beautiful, purifying light.

Some later equated 1969 and its so-called “Summer of Love” with sex and drugs, but the twenty-six rides involved no drugs and no sex. Therefore, in my mind’s eye, I separated 1969 from hippy drug-dogma. When I hitchhiked in 1970 the rot had already set in and the experience seemed different, and strangely tainted by filth. Therefore I cannot claim the evidence that drugs are harmful was not there.

If I’d been wiser I would have quit drugs sooner, but I was a fool. I found drugs very attractive, but even at the start my stomach felt a queasiness, an intuition which should have alerted me. I suppose I needed to suffer to learn, but by the end of 1972 I had become a rabid reactionary, and felt that for every good there is a push-back of evil, and that the purity of 1969 had been betrayed by tricked people, (among whom I included myself), and that drugs were the Trickster.

Drugs were a devious Trickster, for it was impossible to call “getting high” anything other than “high”. I had a terrible time attempting to convince friends that what they could see was obviously “high” was actually a sort of optical illusion. I couldn’t find the words, (even though, where my friends might be excused because they suffered amnesia regarding the “high” they had experienced, I had notebooks full of reminders that prevented me from forgetting, which I could refer to). It was a source of great frustration to me that my reformer’s-zeal sounded so prissy and preachy, and that I was the object of scorn.

One problem was that people desired objective science. They still do, but even after fifty years of research and amazing technological advancements the human brain remains a shimmering, flickering map of a billion pathways, like a busy city seen from above at night. Certain general areas can now be identified pertaining to certain emotions and certain activities, and it can be seen whether it is “rush hour” or not, but the structure of individual thoughts and of crucial insights remain hidden in the complexity. Understanding remains what it was fifty years ago, more subjective than objective. The best way to understand a mind is to use it.

Therefore, to explain the difference between a drug-high and a natural-high, I resorted to poetic symbols and analogies, which are not scientific and can be dangerous. I would say “A drug-high is like X while a natural-high is like Y”, and my observations could be scoffed down in flames with the two words, “Prove it.”

For what it’s worth, after decades I came up with the symbol of an arch with a keystone. Before the keystone can be put in place the two sides of the arch must be raised, and it takes considerable energy, in the form of disciplined concentration, to keep the two sides from falling, but once the keystone is in place all that energy is freed, for the two sides support each other. The sensation of having freed-up energy is pleasurable, a “high”. When a person does something as simple as a crossword puzzle they are presented with a problem and are enjoying the “high” of finding answers.

Often, once an arch is completed, one doesn’t need to think of it any more. Learning to walk or drive a car involves considerable concentration, but later we walk or drive largely on a sort of autopilot, without thinking about what we do. In fact at any given moment our awareness is a laser focus on one spot, even as an enormous amount goes on in autopilot in our subconscious. Millions of individual arches involving millions of keystones are involved, and major arches are built of countless smaller arches.

Besides times of building there are times things need to be taken down. A useful analogy is a desk that gets so messy it becomes impossible to work, so work must cease and a new work, cleaning-the-desk, must be done. While this can be experienced as a pleasurable event like doing a crossword puzzle, it is often experienced as a depression of sorts. We’d rather eat than wash the dishes. We are creatures of habit, and prefer doing what we enjoy, and some of the greatest crises of our lives involve stopping what we enjoy, and doing what we don’t.

Using my analogy of an arch, this involves removing the keystone of an old arch. Immediately the energy of the two sides is released. One had better be prepared, for otherwise the arch collapses into a heap of rubble and much energy does little more than raise a cloud of mental dust, (which may be a good thing, if the old arch was a bad habit causing serious problems). If one is prepared, one has some sort of new-and-improved arch they are trying out (perhaps very tentatively). In other cases one may backslide, reverting from a better behavior that feels new and uncomfortable to old, tried-and-true behavior that has negative consequences.

Like all analogies, the “archway-keystone” analogy has shortcomings, but one thing I liked about it was that it explained why a drug-high was negative. Drugs removed keystones in a higgledy-pigglety manner, freeing up energy without regard to what arches were involved. I noticed that drugged people were initially very “liberated”, in that they were able to abandon old ideas and accept new ideas, but at times this merely meant they were suggestible, and willing to accept new ideas that seemed downright dumb. The discipline of careful thought was abandoned, and, in the long term, rather than carefully crafted new thoughts they tended to backslide to the old. Consequently they were able to say “drugs haven’t changed me”, when change in fact is a crucial component to growth, and failure-to-change is the fabric of frustration, and even madness.

To be honest, left to my own devices, I would have destroyed my physical brain with drugs in the manner some of my closest friends did, for I would have tried harder and harder to get high and stay high until the damages became too great. I can’t take credit for the fact I could compare being on-drugs with being off-drugs, while reviewing old notebooks, because I wouldn’t have ever quit. The grace of God did the quitting for me.

The first period off-drugs was due to my stepfather, (who could see what drugs were doing to students at Harvard). He tricked me into going to school in Scotland. I thought the school would be “far out” and “groovy” because it was in a castle, but when I got there I discovered it was like joining the marines. In my view there was far too much exercise and far too much study. There were no drugs available and no way to run away, as I couldn’t figure out how to hitchhike across an ocean. Then, when I finally returned to the States, I could see my friends had been strangely damaged, but instead of blaming drugs I blamed President Nixon.

The second period off-drugs was due, strangely, to my incorrect conclusion that what was damaging friends was economic pressures, which could be solved by making heaps of money buying drugs very cheaply and selling them sort-of-cheaply, which involved me in an escapade aboard a “borrowed” yacht, and two months at sea with no drugs.

Even despite the evidence I received by being able to compare periods on-drugs with periods off-drugs, (which was a blessing and likely saved my life, if not all of my brains), I refused to blame drugs, and therefore went to hell a third time, perhaps experiencing what scripture describes as being “given to your sin”. My notebooks show me learning things the hard way:

Even as I insisted upon being stupid I recall my conscience nagging me, and also I kept being quietly harangued by incidents in reality, such as someone walking up to me in Harvard Square and handing me a pamphlet that had been kicking around since 1966:

At that time Meher Baba’s face had a habit of popping up unexpectedly, for example briefly in the movie, “Woodstock“, or midst pictures on the cover of an album by Peter Townsend. Meher Baba was definitely opposed to drugs:

“Tell those who indulge in these drugs (LSD, marijuana, and other types) that it is harmful physically, mentally and spiritually, and that they should stop the taking of these drugs. Your duty is to tell them, regardless of whether they accept what you say, or if they ridicule or humiliate you, to boldly and bravely face these things.”

As I started to toy with the idea of going to India I discovered I would not be welcomed by Meher Baba’s disciples unless I had been off drugs for six months. At first this meant I simply wouldn’t visit them, though it had become increasingly obvious to me drugs were failing to get me as “high” as they once had done. The problem was that I had become completely dependent, and without marijuana I couldn’t get “high” at all. Therefore, (though I knew I could quit as I’d quit twice before), quitting drugs meant I’d face a gray time (I had no idea how long) when I’d have to go without the very poetry which the Trickster had used to attract me to drugs in the first place. The fact I eventually went through a gray period without poetry may not seem like much, (especially among those who deem my poems a good reason to rush screaming from the room), but in retrospect it was one of the braver things I’ve ever done.

I went through this chaos between age sixteen and age nineteen, and it was during this time Audley went through a similar upheaval, and also was the time we became friends.

I eventually decided the Trickster was especially effective right after 1969, because there was a sort of afterglow due to the “natural” event, an event which was some sort of worldwide “revival” or “jubilee” or perhaps what they call a “darshan” in India, and people on drugs noticed this effulgence and gave drugs credit when drugs deserved none. In 1970 I simply and naively decided a “revolution” had occurred and the world was changed forever, and I went wild.

The second half of my senior year of high school turned into one, long, accelerating party, and I barely graduated. The parties extended into the summer, as if everyone knew their time living pampered in a wealthy suburb was drawing to a close, (not one of us could afford to even rent a house in such a town), and everyone wanted to have one final, crazy binge. There seemed to be an underground network that determined whose parents were away, and that house would be where the party was; in a wealthy suburb hard-working parents deserved breaks and could afford many vacations, and therefore many homes became available; sometimes I attended three or four parties a night, unsure what town I was in by dawn. When I looked in a morning mirror, the face I saw I looked nothing like the youth I was in February, when I placed sixth in my weight-class in the state wrestling meet. My face was becoming a papery hue of ashy gray and I’d lost fifteen pounds, though I was thin to begin with.

While I cringe slightly, looking back and seeing debauchery and decay, it is important to remember the Trickster was aided and abetted by older people, (some merely fools but some truly evil), who stated we were “expanding” our consciousness. I truly felt I was a pioneer on the frontier, and that, if I was clumsy, it was because I was inexperienced, and that further experience would result in further learning. Jimi Hendrix’s album, “Are You Experienced” (1967), made me feel a sort of smug pity for those who were not “experienced” (although the hit “Purple Haze” was not about drugs; it was about a dream, and was written before Hendrix tried LSD). The problem was that drugs involved amnesia. It is hard to learn from experience when you can’t remember what the experience was.

The sense I had at that time was that the inner world was especially loaded with inspiration. I could hear it when guitarists freed themselves from the constraints of sheet music and simply improvised. Therefore, on one hand, I wanted to be free from constraints, while on the other I wanted to record the improvisations, which imposed a new constraint. I had fascinating talks with people who wondered if attempting to record, write-down, and in a sense make-a-map of the new landscape was detrimental to exploration of that landscape. Some suggested my note-taking meant I was “up tight” and failing to “go with the flow”, however it was in my nature to keep notes. I asserted the notes themselves were a sort of musical instrument like a guitar, full of poetry and art that spilled onto the page spontaneously. During parties I’d place a large sheet of paper on a table with colored markers, so people could improvise what came into their drug-addled brains, so we could remember later, even after the amnesia set in.

I especially liked getting to know others better. It seemed like I’d spent years on my best behavior, walking around prim and proper and constrained, while secretly and deeply desiring to get the hell out of town to some place where I could be myself; now suddenly people were more open and honest. Even some “people-over-thirty”, (a term-of-scorn originally aimed at old, gray communists at the Kremlin (1964), but later a catch-phrase covering all “square” adults, used by radicals such as Abbie Hoffman)(1968), turned out to be people-over-thirty who were interesting. When parents came home unexpectedly early and discovered their children having a party some surprised me. Where I expected such parents to blow a gasket some sat down and talked, telling interesting stories about how they came to be wealthy. A few even smoked marijuana, which struck me as shattering all rules and preconceptions.

Despite all the joy of all the parties I sometimes felt deep exasperation, because people didn’t all improvise beautiful music or pontificate profundity. Some seemed purely focused on the physical sensation of a “buzz” or “rush”, or on the gluttony of the “munchies”, or on how hard it was to order fast-food when they were so stoned that they couldn’t read the illuminated menu above the counter, (they got lost in the menu’s dazzle), and my exasperation leaks into my notes:

...My friends: They all are saying
Things they've said before.
Deep inside I'm praying
They'll say a little more...

"...shit, man,
We were so stoned,
I mean really wreaked,
And everything was so funny.
We walked into this place
With all these librarian
Type people...
You know.
And they were all
STARING AT US
And we were really stoned,
Fantastically wrecked
And we started laughing
Really hard
And had to leave!"

More more more more!
The stuff they see is such a bore.
Unless they stop to investigate
They'll feel so small
And break and fall
And it will be too late...

For those who doubt the veracity of my claim (that I kept scientific notes which included noting my increasing frustration), I’ll include a picture of the page that held the above fragment. (Proof that the notes were highly scientific is that they were inked onto graph paper.)

Freudians informed me my frustration was due a thwarted sex-drive but, in terms of sex, while I felt sheepish about my lack of experience, I simply lacked the craving others had. I recall walking into a party where everyone was naked and painting each others aroused bodies with day-glow paint under black-lights, and, after watching for a while, I decided the conversation had no intellectual merit and was downright boring, and left to find a better party. I felt no tugging lust or hankering, and while some shamed me, and I myself felt embarrassed for being “sexually repressed”, I was merely innocent. Now that fifty years have passed I think that rather than “repressed” I may have possessed a degree of something called “purity”, and should have been praised for incipient spirituality, rather than shamed.

Not that I was a saint; I did have a girl-friend, and we did experimentally “fool around”, but the petting was secondary to our other problems and disagreements, one of which was that she didn’t approve of drugs and most parties, a second of which was that I often would rather write poetry than talk with her, and a third of which was that I had around seven other girlfriends.

I think these “other women” simply recognized my innocence made me sexually nonthreatening, and a good confidant. They were all a year or two younger, and a few years later might have represented a considerable temptation, but at the time I can honestly say they were more of a bother, like little sisters with problems that seemed to be all fuss and drama. I endured hearing their woes about boyfriends, and also hearing their boyfriend’s woes about them, but I’d rather be out with a couple pals my age, driving about pretending to be full of braggadocio like The Three Musketeers, when in fact we were quite shy. My pals were a year older than I, and sometimes we’d become competitive in terms of physical prowess, or in terms of our prowess in sweet-talking girls from the windows of cars, or in terms of our artistic prowess. I’d often feel inferior to them, which was odd because I had a girlfriend and they didn’t, and I had seven girls seeking my advice, while those same seven girls were a bit wary of my pals.

This all stewed together into what I suppose was our “community”, or perhaps “gang.” It was a precarious association, because we had no place of our own, and there was a vague awareness that the wealthy suburbs wanted us ejected, because we were in fact too poor to live there, without our parents. Perhaps no other community on earth rejects youth to the degree those wealthy suburbs did, (although scripture speaks of a Canaanite god “Moloch” which demanded child-sacrifice). To me going to Vietnam seemed a sort of child-sacrifice, and even going to college involved the shattering of our community, which had existed since kindergarten. All in all we felt unwanted and unwelcome, which in an odd way pushed us closer together and made our community stronger.

Besides finding houses where parents weren’t home, we found a place out in the woods. There was several hundred acres of overgrown farmland where the towns of Lincoln, Wayland and Weston came together, and, though developers had plans to turn the area into a country club and vast golf course, for the time being we called it our own. We even entertained plans to somehow get rich quick, and buy the land. Perhaps it awoke some ancestral memory of times when the young simply moved further into the woods to start a farm of their own, but we moved out into the forest and had parties out where no one was bothered by us. The parties were wonderful barbecues, with people playing guitars and flutes in firelight, involving long conversations, some deep and some whimsical and full of laughter, until birds serenaded the green light of dawn.

Unfortunately word spread about how nice our parties were, and each party was larger and more successful, until several hundred people showed up. This caused parking problems along suburban streets, and caused suburbanites to be dismayed by long-haired, garishly-dressed strangers entering and departed the woods via their backyard trees. Back in those times a party was deemed successful if the police showed up, but our biggest party had the officers from three towns wandering the midnight woods, meeting lost youths who also wondered where the heck the party was. To me this suggested our “community” had a problem, accented by the fact that after the biggest party the parents of seven young girls strictly forbid their daughters from ever attending such parties again.

I wanted to get away and think about the problems that were surfacing, but got no relief. This was in part due to my being a sort of missionary of the counter-culture, which was in part brought about by the fact my business of importing fireworks from the inner city to the suburbs evolved, in a perfectly natural way, to importing drugs from the inner city. (Suburban marijuana at that time was heavily laced with alfalfa, and a cigarette would barely get one high, whereas marijuana from the black, urban neighborhood of Roxbury was “the real deal” and earned the suburban nickname “Mooner.”) While I saw little difference between fireworks and drugs (they both let you see pretty colors) the law begged to differ, and the risk I blithely faced was considerable jail time, which led me to scrutinizing people and wondering if they were “narcs”. At the same time it became widely known, “Mooner is the best stuff”, and friends were constantly introducing me to strangers, young and old, some of whom had never smoked marijuana before in their lives.

I had a strangely developed sense of responsibility about the mental health of novices, for a criminal. Some novices were as young as thirteen, and I worried they couldn’t handle the “expansion” of their brains. At worst I suppose I was selfishly afraid they’d “spill the beans” and land me in jail, but I’d insist that if they smoked that they first smoke with me, so I could oversee and guide.

I suppose it was because I was a “guide” that it came to pass that when someone was suffering a “bummer” or “bad trip” people brought these suffering souls not to a hospital or parent or priest, but to a seventeen-year-old me. I was cock-sure I could handle such cases, and this arrogant attitude was furthered by the fact I was strangely good at waking people from their bad dreams. I’m not sure how or why, but I just was unafraid of their schizophrenic states, and jollied or bullied or distracted them from the mental ruts they were in. In one case it was as simple as taking the bummed-out person outside to watch some fireworks; the dazzle in their eyes made them utterly forget whatever their nightmare was.

Another time a girl was slouched on her haunches in an incredibly ugly way, with her head between her knees, softly wailing, “I’m ugly.” She was repeating, “Ugly…ugly…ugly” when I intruded, “You’re not.” I was so firm about it she sat up straighter and looked less ugly. “I’m not?” “No, your not.” She smiled, and didn’t look ugly at all, and just like that her “bad trip” was over.

One time, before school let out, some younger students had come rushing up to me exclaiming “Agatha is bumming out! Agatha’s having a bad trip! If the teachers find out they’ll call the police!” I had no clue who Agatha was, but went where I was led, and saw a girl in a chair, her back against a wall and her arm folded, pouting with her jaw thrust out, wearing an olive-green army jacket and looking very militant, as she glared out from under hair that hung over her face. I dragged a chair over and sat next to her and folded my own arms, looking sidelong at her. Her friends all watched anxiously from the distance. After a while the girl looked sidelong at me, and I smiled and inquired, “Something wrong?”

“Yes, They’re annoying me.”

“Oh? How?”

“They keep saying I’m bumming out!”

“You’re not?”

“I’m not bumming out!”

I laughed, And Agatha looked at me sharply, and snapped, “Why are you laughing?”

I said, “I’m laughing because, if you’re not bumming out, it means they are the ones who are bumming out. Just look at them. I think they are.”

She looked over at her friends, who were all gnawing their nails and looking very worried, and then looked back at me, and then a wonderful smile slowly spread across her face, as beautiful as dawn. Then her friends, of course, could see we were both smiling, and all were immensely relieved, and they all started smiling as well. I stood up aware my reputation as a bummer-buster was sustained. Once again I was a super-hero who had saved the day, through doing next to nothing.

By summer I was finding the business of doing next to nothing increasingly tiresome. Particularly wearisome was the fact my stepfather’s old house had two wings, a parent’s wing and a children’s wing, and my friends felt walking into “my” side of the house without being invited in, or even ringing the doorbell, was part of the new world, a world without property or borders. I often had dinner with my parents, and would walk down to my bedroom expecting to retreat and write, and instead would discover between three and seven members of my “community” in my bedroom, eager to see me. I never told them to buzz off, but at times I wanted to. I suspected they were using me, because I always had Mooner and was generous, (and in fact my records show I never made money as a “pusher”, because marking-up prices was “exploitation”, and not something one did to one’s friends.) I also suspected they were using me in another way, liking the way I did “next to nothing”, but never doing “next to nothing” in return.

What was the “next to nothing” I did? I couldn’t find the words, and even poetry was failing me, and poetry was “next to nothing” personified. I felt in touch with something hugely important, but unable to grasp it. And perhaps this is the most wicked evil of the Trickster. He allows one to glimpse a shore from a ship moving the wrong way: The energy that allows one to see is gained by knocking out keystones that enable one to grasp. I was unable to grasp what was happening to me, but knew I wanted to grasp.

One event struck me as a sort of final straw, or perhaps as a pebble that precipitated an avalanche. It involved a time I was being one of The Three Musketeers with my two buddies. Lord knows what pill we were high on, but we were on a hill overlooking a small lake, looking down on people by the shore who seemed very tiny as we felt absolutely giant. And while in this exalted state my two buddies became involved in a competition about who was more huge, in intellectual terms. One would say, “Aristotle said…” and the other would counter, “Yes, but Plato said…”

I stood back and felt small, for I knew little about poetry and nothing about philosophy; I knew who Shakespeare and Robert Frost were, but poets like Keats and Shelly drew a blank. Philosophy seemed boring and useless to me, so I had no interest in Camus or Nietzsche, yet my buddies seemed like authorities because they could name and quote people I knew nothing about. I felt younger and less educated and quite inferior, in this boyish competition, yet I had something they lacked. I had “next to nothing”.

There was no getting around a simple fact: No one really liked the poetry they wrote, while mine had won an award. It was handed out during our graduation ceremony. It came with no money and involved more trouble than it was worth, for though my best buddies tried to shake my hand and congratulate me I sensed they resented my five-minutes-of-fame. In the strange, competitive world of adolescent youth I was guilty of a crime, for I had won with “next to nothing”.

I couldn’t fathom what I sensed; I could see but could not grasp. In a troubled mood I just wanted to get away and think, and followed a whim, loading up my backpack and leaving town.

My hitchhiking wandered west across upper New York State and up into Canada, with my aim not a particular place but to “get away.” However I had the definite sense 1970 was not like 1969. Perhaps, because my hair was longer and my skin was less rosy, a different sort pulled over when I stuck out my thumb, but I had the sense some sort of push-back was occurring, opposed to the sheer beauty of 1969. The world did not seem full of beautiful people. The beautiful light was still shining down on the land, but clouds were gathering.

I can’t truly tell of the details of that trip, because the notebook dedicated to that trip was lost, but perhaps my recollection of how I came to lose that notebook will give the flavor of the journey.

Back in those days crossing the border was usually quite easy. The official would ask you if you had anything illegal, you would reply you didn’t, and that was that. However the young driver of the car stuffed with young men I was hitching a ride in, heading back into the United States, became sweaty. He was nervous because he had three cases of illegal beer in his trunk. When the bored border-agent asked if the driver had anything illegal to declare the driver, for some guilty reason, replied in a strangely strangled tone, “No, but he…” and he jabbed a thumb back at me, “…is a hitchhiker”. The border agent seemed to wake midst a yawn, looked at me with interest, and inquired, “Do you mind if I look in your pack?”

What could I say? I very much minded, for I had drugs in my pack. However I hoped he wouldn’t find them, as they were secreted in the aluminum tubes of the pack’s frame. So I said, “I wouldn’t mind at all,” and swung out of the car and handed my pack to the man. And then, before I could reach back into the car for the overnight bag that held, among other things, my notebook, there was a squealing of tires and the vehicle whipped away. The young driver who had demonstrated compassion when he picked me up had run out of compassion, and had left me in the lurch.

As I turned back to the border agent my mind was working very fast. I didn’t want him to search my pack, and my mind intuitively seized upon a way to stop the search. I looked the man in the eye, as he looked after the swiftly vanishing car with a perplexed look, and protested, “They drove off with my other suitcase!”

The man looked at me with a sort of vague horror, as if I was presenting him with a problem he didn’t want to deal with, and his immediate response was to shove my backpack into my arms, swivel, walk into a little office beside the road, and slam the door.

As I walked south from the border, chuckling and feeling a bit smug about the fact the pack I shrugged up onto my shoulders hadn’t been searched, I couldn’t fail to notice that two men, the driver of the car and the border agent, had both turned their backs on me in roughly thirty seconds. Two men had seen me as a problem to avoid.

Not that I blamed them. As I turned to walk backwards, dangling my thumb out at a long string of cars, every car that passed without slowing represented a person who saw me as a problem to avoid. Most couldn’t be bothered, and the cars that slowed were the kindly exception to the rule. But there seemed to be more kindness in 1969 than 1970.

What was so very different? There was something about 1969 which didn’t involve anyone turning their backs on anyone, and instead involved seeing “everyone is beautiful in their own way.” 1969 was like the keystone of an arch that brought both sides together and freed up energy. Was it something so simple as “Love”?

By the time I got out of a car by the toll booth on the Massachusetts Turnpike, back in my home town, I was aware my trip had been a success, in that it was full of adventure, but an utter failure in terms of “getting away”. In 1969 I had escaped my boring town into a wonderful world of especially kind people (because that is who picks up hitchhikers), but in 1970 I seemed to be seeing the same problem my hometown had, in different people, no matter where I went.

In fact one 1970 ride set the record for the fastest I ever traveled while hitchhiking. A big, burly man had “pegged out” his wide, swaying Cadillac (over 120 mph; 193 km/hr) on I-81 between Watertown and Syracuse, New York. He was jovial, and kept telling me, “Relax, kid. What’re you so tense for? Here, have some more whisky.” The whisky didn’t help. I was tense because I didn’t like the way the big car floated and drifted and was never quite in the center of the lane, and I was also tense because, while 1969 witnessed the freedom of falling shackles and chains, 1970 seemed to be a constant reminder that how you used that freedom might kill you.

The toll booth was about as far as I could get in town from my home, and it was around three AM. I shouldered my pack and faced a six mile walk beneath streetlights, from pool of light to pool of light, up and down hills. Now, fifty years later, such a hike, without dinner and without sleep, would probably kill me, but at the time I disparagingly muttered to myself over what bad shape I was in.

Such disparagement was uncommon in my poetry, but all through my diary entries, which is likely why they required separate notebooks. The poetry spoke of hope and high places, while the diary spoke of how I needed to shape up and stop being such a damn fool. As dawn broke, and I trudged up the front steps of my home, I was in the mood to reform. I felt burned out (partly because the final ride had been from soldiers on leave racing to get back on base before they were AWOL, and they were handing out No-dose (pure caffeine) like they were mints, but the pills were wearing off). I needed food and water and most of all sleep, things my mother was good at providing.

My mother was up early, and, much to my astonishment, when I walked through the door I faced her ire. Before I could say a word I learned that, while I was away, she had heard a noise after she’d gone to bed, and when she walked up to my end of the house she discovered a party going on, and that the air, as she put it, “reeked of marijuana”. When she asked my friends what on earth they thought they were doing, they blamed me, insisting I had invited them. Then she folded her arms and tapped her toe, as if demanding I explain.

I was too tired to explain, and anyway, the only explanation I could think of wouldn’t have sounded good: “When I said I was leaving town they must have thought I said you were leaving town”. I just winced annoyance and shook my head in disbelief and spread my palms. Then I swung my pack from my shoulders and turned to head off to bed.

She added, “Please keep the noise down. A friend of your brother’s is sleeping in your sister’s old bedroom.”

“Oh really? Who?”

“Audley Bine.”

I winced again. The lady made no sense. She got all bent out of shape when my nice friends were in her house, yet felt it was perfectly fine to put one of my brother’s creepy friends into the bedroom next to mine.

In any case, that is how Audley Bine became my next door neighbor.

PUNKY WOOD –Part 3– –Being Derailed–

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 that as 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.

https://tackandtalk.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/horse-safety1.jpg

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.

PUNKY WOOD –Part 2–An Old Friend–

Over the years I have held well over a hundred jobs, and gradually came to very much enjoy job interviews, as the prospect of rejection grew less intimidating.

I think I first stopped being terribly intimidated in New Mexico at age thirty-three, when I was required to show proof at the unemployment office that I had applied for work in at least three places every week, in order to obtain tiny unemployment benefits of $32.00/week.  (The benefits were hardly worth the effort, but I continued to bother spending a day each week walking around fulfilling the requirements, primarily because I knew my getting benefits irritated my mean, crooked former-boss.) It was benign summertime, and the rest of the week I was busily writing in a campground where the rent was $25.00/week; I had absolutely no desire for the interruptions caused by the nuisance of employment. To make certain I wouldn’t accidentally get a job, I applied for work at the oddest places, and adopted an attitude of curiosity where it didn’t matter that it became immediately obvious I wasn’t qualified for the job; I asked questions because I was interested in learning about a job I couldn’t do. I became more like a reporter than an applicant, and for some reason most (but not all) interviewers liked the tables being turned, and being the one interviewed, and we’d sit for half an hour “chewing the fat” over coffee.  They seemed surprised a shabby drifter was so articulate, (and I liked the free coffee.)

But when I was young and terribly shy it was a completely different matter. Looking for work was a humiliation and a hell.

It wasn’t so bad when I ran my own little landscaping business in the wealthy suburb I grew up in. I walked up and down streets putting a file-card-sized advertisement in mail boxes, with big lettering that inquired, “Spring Cleaning? Need Muscle?” and then had details and a phone number in small lettering. Then I sat back to wait for others to call me. Rather than like asking others to dance it was more like the phone rang and others asked me to dance. (In my list of jobs-I’ve-had I don’t know whether to count this business as being one job, or twenty-five; rich and interesting people asked me to help with all sorts of interesting tasks, but that is a tale for another time.)

It was quite a different thing when I looked through a newspaper’s classified ads for the help-wanted ads, and had to go fill out an application. Then it was like asking a girl for a dance, and I was never very bold in that respect. In some ways it could be worse, like asking a girl to dance when you didn’t know how to dance, and she’d be required to teach you.

(As an aside, during my first date with my wife we attended a Cajun barbecue with Cajun music, and were both surprised to see people begin dancing in a way I supposed was Cajun. I said I didn’t know how to dance, and she said she didn’t know how to dance, and then we decided to invent our own dance and danced joyously for ninety minutes straight. I knew then I had found someone special. However I was thirty-seven when that happened.)

At age twenty-one I was gruesomely uncomfortable when it came to job interviews and “selling myself” in any way, shape or form. “Tooting your own horn” seemed somehow immodest, even rude. But in January, 1975, I was flat broke, which is a state good at pushing a man past his self-imposed limits.

My mother knew something was up when she came downstairs and found me plunked at her dining-room table, sneering distastefully at the small local paper, which was opened to the help-wanted section. She was, as she put it, “all gussied up”, which meant she was dressed up in tweed to go to some sort of cocktail party; fragrant with subtle perfume; tall; her short, dark hair perfectly styled with gray wings at her temples, and wearing dangling tear-shaped earrings of green jade.  She radiated an aura of pleased serenity, but the moment she summed up my situation her serenity became creased by concern. The fact I apparently needed a job suggested there was a problem, and she did not like her children to have problems, especially when she was about to go out to a party.

She veered  carefully away from the topic of my prospects, and instead inquired if I would sprinkle some salt on the icy front walk before my stepfather came home. I was glad to escape the dismal want-ads, so I got up to do it, aware he’d be home any minute.

It was just getting dark as he pulled up to the side of the street, even as I sprinkled the salt, which I decided made me look good, as he didn’t often see me working. He smiled at me as he gingerly got out of his Saab, an elderly man with only a fringe of grey hair left, but with his baldness hidden beneath a checked, deer-slayer hat like the one Sherlock Holmes wore. I thought the hat looked silly, but never told him so because he so obviously enjoyed wearing it.

My stepfather was 28 years older than my mother. His friends had told him that marrying her would either extend his life or kill him, and initially we kids did our best to kill him, and he actually did have a heart attack within the first six months of adopting six troubled children.

Immediately after the marriage I’d done my best to be polite, but when the old man accidentally offended me I began to refer to him as “the fossil” behind his back. I deemed him an old fool, and even a home-wrecker, for I preferred being a struggling family on the verge of having to move out of a wealthy suburb, to being mere used baggage bought by an old coot who wanted a trophy wife. But then things changed. Somewhat amazingly I began to feel like a trophy stepchild.

He had been a Harvard Law School Professor, and fit the mold: “You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much.” He would speak with long pauses, as if he was a very learnéd man and all the world breathlessly awaited his thoughtful opinions. He seemed quite blissfully unaware that the mannerisms he felt were charming were in fact dreadfully dull.

During our first dinners together as a family I attempted to bat my eyes politely as he took forever to say even the most inconsequential things, “I think…..I would like….some mustard.” My ten-year-old and eight-year-old younger brother and sister would have none of it, and would interject silly things into the old man’s pauses, completing his sentences for him: “I think….I would like….to tap dance?” Then they would dissolve into helpless laughter. My stepfather initially was infuriated by the affronts to his dignity, but his manner of punishing them was to rise in wrath and stalk silently away from the table, which made my younger siblings only laugh all the more helplessly, as my mother regarded them with horror. I hated dinnertime. But after six months, and especially after his heart attack, I began to notice something. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but the old man dropped the long pauses.

The late 1960’s was a tumultuous time, with disrespect of elders in fashion. My two elder brothers were away at college, and both dropped out to join a commune two thousand miles away. My older sister had a scandalous relationship with a married, older man and got thrown out of our house, which I thought a bit hypocritical of my mother, considering she too was living with an older man. At age fifteen I decided to tell my mother what she was doing wrong, and was rewarded with a slap across my face I likely deserved.

In retrospect my stepfather seems slightly mad to have walked into such a buzz-saw at retirement age. Having been a stepfather myself, I now have a better understanding of the problems stepfathers face, but at the time I had no mercy. I loved my father, felt my mother should have stood by her man, and saw my stepfather as an interloper.

My father had been a famous surgeon who had at least five major trauma’s simultaneously occur in his life, not the least of which was the fact the woman he’d had six children with didn’t love him any more, (and perhaps had never loved him),  which led him to begin raving and drinking too much. But the specific trauma that intellectually hit me hardest was the simple fact he couldn’t do what he once had done. He’d been an amazing surgeon, able to suture the ends of severed arteries back together with twenty tiny stitches and tie the knots with one hand. No other surgeon could do what he could do, enabling him to make what, in modern terms, was roughly a half million to a million dollars a year.  But then, (in the same manner that even Babe Ruth reached an age when no team wanted him), my father hit the wall at age forty-four.

This contributed greatly to my desire to become a writer. I wanted to find a vocation I’d never be too old to do.

My stepfather went through a similar crisis, which for obvious reasons I watched with interest, (if not compassion). When he hit age seventy Harvard College retired him. He was as mentally sharp as ever, but it was simply the college’s policy in 1970: When you hit seventy you were out the door; no discussion.

I was somewhat incredulous that he should be hurt or angry, and puzzled that he became as crabby as he became. In my eyes getting a job was more likely to make me crabby. He had a fine pension and plenty of money saved and could just kick back and laze as happily as a clam, but instead he was miserable. Was it possible a man could want to work?

Then something nice surprised him midst his bitterness. Three of his former students had formed a law office in Portland, Maine, and they came to him and very humbly inquired if he might be so good as to consider helping them out by becoming the law office’s senior advisor. I have never seen an old man stop being crabby so fast. He seemed to feel like a man granted a reprieve on the gallows, and accepted the job as a very great blessing, and seemed to never forget he was blessed, gently twinkling like morning stars in the afterglow of glory.

I think it was my older sister who first understood that the old man deserved appreciation, which was a bit surprising, as she’d become a fiery feminist. She made me walk on eggs, for fear I’d offend her. I didn’t think she’d put up with anyone over thirty. Yet when she visited she took to greeting the old man with demonstrative hugs. He most definitely was not a man prone to hugging, but he seemed to like hers, especially during the days when he was unemployed and crabby.

I myself didn’t hug the man. I’d tried it one time, the first breakfast after we became a new family. I came downstairs and gave him a hug as he sat at the table reading the paper, and he gruffly stated, “Don’t feel you have to do that ever again.” I recoiled, and it was only after four years, (when involved in some sort of “express your inner feelings” pop-psychology), that I confessed I’d been hurt, and he apologized, saying he only intended to free me from feeling I had to display any sort of artificial affection. At the time I took him at his word, and stayed away from him.

I didn’t approve of my younger sibling’s irreverence at the dinner table, and tried to frown at them, although they were so funny I sometimes couldn’t manage it. For my part I politely discussed weather and sports with my stepfather and then excused myself; I left the table as swiftly as I possibly could. I assumed he didn’t care for me. At age sixteen I ran away from home for a week as a sort of grandiose gesture, and was a bit taken aback that he never really noticed, because my mother never told him; he just assumed I was off visiting friends.

Only gradually did we become interested in each other. I think the first common ground we discovered involved a love of puns. Then, because my mother had a large dictionary on an ornate stand by the dining-room table, we shared an interest in the derivation of words. The closest I ever came to  being so bold as to argue with the man involved words. One time I ventured I didn’t approve of the word “niggardly”, and he protested the word had nothing to do with race, so we looked the word up. Usually he was correct and I was not, but, on the rare occasions I knew something he didn’t, he always behaved appreciative rather than offended. That surprised me.

Then, as I became a hippy and began hitchhiking around the country, he actually supported my adventures rather than attempting to prevent them. The police tended to investigate smooth-cheeked hitchhikers, to see if they were runaways, and I was able to show them a permission-slip from my stepfather that I carried in my wallet. (I don’t think it was the illegible handwriting that impressed the officers, as much as it was the fact the stationary read, “Harvard Law School”, at the top.)

Though I hitchhiked because I was restless, and the suburbs were sterile and bored the hell out of me, I always pretended I was doing it “for a school project” or “for an English paper.” This caused a bit of a problem when no such papers were forthcoming. However I did produce one paper, a “senior project”, which drew a strange response from the old man.

What I did was to overcome my shyness and interview every member of my senior class I could get to talk with me, during lunch in the cafeteria. I asked them to describe what cliques they had belonged to, going back as far as they could remember. Then I wrote a paper with the title “The Evolution Of Cliques In A Suburban High School”  which I got in trouble for, (because I handed the same paper in to both my English and Social Studies teachers, blithely unaware such redundancy might present a problem). The paper contained a fair amount of sarcasm, and was vain, for it described hippy poets as the “most highly evolved” clique, and my stepfather was completely enchanted by it. He took it in to Harvard and showed it to all his friends, even making extra copies of the badly typed document. We never talked together about the paper, but I could see the man was delighted. I found the experience strange, for I didn’t tend to think of myself as being delightful, at age seventeen.

When I was eighteen one of my older brothers “borrowed” a rich man’s yacht and we sailed it south, intending to load it with marijuana in Jamaica and get rich quick. We made it as far as Nassau before the Law caught up with us. We deserved jail, but my stepfather fought for us, and he got us off with a slap on the wrist, though it cost him a pretty penny. Sometimes having a stepfather who is a boring professor of law isn’t all bad.

Now I was twenty-one and had known the old man for seven years, and not only had I failed to kill him, but against my own will I found myself liking him a lot.

He had become very careful and methodical in his old age, to avoid falling or losing things. He stretched little ice-grips over his boots, and followed a three-step process when leaving his Saab to make certain he did not forget his briefcase, keys, or to turn his headlights off. Even though I had salted the front walk, he took all the care of a man on a tightrope, gingerly walking to the front steps, and then, after entering the house, went through a similar process,  reminding me of Mr. Rogers in the way he always hung up his coat and deerslayer hat in an identical manner. He was particularly slow and deliberate when hanging up his car keys on a particular hook. Then I shadowed him to the dining room table, where he would open his briefcase and remove the Portland Press Herald and the New York Times. He was well aware of my tendency to lurk like a vulture, and handed me the papers with a smile.

He was also slow and deliberate with his questioning (though he had dropped the long pauses,) and was very observant. As a lawyer, he knew how to cross examine, and despite his caution he’d learned to think quickly on his feet. A lot seemed to happen in his silences, at times giving me the sense he was psychic.

On this occasion he must have noted I didn’t reach for the Times, and instead for the Press Herald, and noticed that rather than opening to the weather map I opened the paper to the “Help Wanted”  page. He also may have noted the town newspaper was already open to “Help Wanted”, on the table. He looked interested, and inquired, “Any work?”

I pretended to find the situation humorous. “Well, there are three jobs in the local paper. I can pretend to be a mechanic at the cannery, or pretend to be a cook at the diner, or pretend to be an expert at veneering the decks of yachts, at the marina. The trick would be to get at least one paycheck, before they fired me.”

My stepfather didn’t say anything, but he did give me a slightly unnerving, very penetrating glance with his very blue eyes, before my mother came bustling in and said it was time to go.

Then abruptly the house was gruesomely silent. A sterility I knew all too well was pressing in from the black windows, as I faced a Friday night alone. I swiftly glanced through the help-wanted ads in the Press Herald, not expecting to find anything and having my expectations confirmed.  Then I began to pace around my parent’s house, trying to find something to think about, to escape my despair.

Sometimes escapism is too obvious. I could click through all the shows on the T.V., and nothing would grab me. I could glance over the spines of all the books in the ceiling-to-floor wall of books in the living-room, and every author would be dull. I could go to the piano and try to lose myself in a song, bellowing at the top of my lungs because no one was home, but my heart wouldn’t be in it. All the symbols of wealth in the plush home were sucked dry of value, and became empty trinkets. There was no escaping a poverty that came creeping in from black windows like ghouls, so I put on my jacket, hat and gloves and went out to walk in it. Something about walking in the darkness was soothing to my soul (and it wasn’t because, “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”).

The soothing was a bit of a mystery to me, and still remains a mystery, when I see a young man striding along a highway when I’m out driving after dark. I’m sure the police are curious as well, but when they pull over to ask a young vagrant what he’s doing or where he’s going, I doubt they get a good answer. (The best answer is “going for a walk”, because then you don’t have to explain). However the real answer is, I have decided, something which involves levels of our being beneath the superficial skim we call our intellect or our “our rational”. Even in the pitch dark we are “communing with nature”.

I found hiking-in-the-dark annoyed psychologists, for they were like the officer questioning the vagrant, and always wanted to know exactly what I was communing, demanding specifics when there were no words. (Also perhaps they were annoyed because when I went for a walk I didn’t have to pay them to be healed). But what (or who) the healing involved was always a mystery. In a sense it was like talking-in-tongues, words that sounded like babbling but were the super-conscious speaking to the subconscious, without granting the conscious mind permission to eavesdrop. Or that’s the best I can do to explain the inexplicable. The simply fact is: After-dark hiking made me feel better without any excuse for feeling better.

One psychologist explained that I “burned up excessive hormones through physical activity”, and I’ll allow that, if it makes him feel less insecure, but he was never in my head in that darkness.

There definitely was a physical component, especially as the walking became striding (which hippies called “trucking”). I’d become caught up in the rhythm, the way feet sounded scuffing over the tar, the way the streetlight pools came and went and bobbed up and down as I strode, the way my striding shadow shortened and then lengthened. Then out of the rhythm would come lyrics, and sometimes the melody of a song. Often it was an old song, for example I might find myself humming a song that came to me when walking home from my girlfriend’s, (back when I had a girlfriend), the evening before I set sail as an outlaw with my brother, when I was well aware I might die at sea.

The night is cricket’s velvet.
My cigarette is glowing.
A police car whispers by.
I have no way of knowing
Will my baby cry
When she finds me going
Going going…

The world is swimming softly.
The cool night air I’m drinking
Brings me softly down
From my happy thinking.
I cannot turn around
Though the happiness is shrinking
Shrinking shrinking…

The streetlight pools are nodding.
The steady pavement’s flowing
Surges as my march is on.
Can she see I’m knowing
This could be my ending song?
Oh am I really going
Going going gone?

Other times the song would be a new song, and I was always a bit mystified where they came from. Not that I worried about such things. Instead merely I enjoyed the sensation. I now blush a little to think how unselfconsciously absorbed in my own emotions I became, and wonder what people sleeping with their window open thought, as a crooning crazy-man approached on the street outside, and then faded away. But I myself became wonderfully carefree, sort of drunk without alcohol, and within a bubble where I felt most like myself, and free of the person I had to pretend to be when applying for some job I really didn’t want to do.

On this particular occasion it slowly dawned on me that there was nothing I could do before daybreak; there were no offices accepting job-applications after dark, and therefore it was a waste of energy to worry. It then occurred to me that, if I couldn’t find a job, perhaps I could join the clam-diggers I saw slogging out over the mudflats from the window of my shack, as the tide went out. In the bitter winds of January it looked like a miserable job, and I had noticed there were fewer and fewer of them as the weather grew colder and colder, but as I paced in the darkness I found the idea strangely appealing. It would be a job with no boss. But they didn’t dig clams in the dark, so it was no use starting right away.

Eventually I found my way along the waterfront to my shack on the dock down below my parent’s house, but it was bitter cold inside. The fire had gone out in the pot bellied stove, and I’d neglected to get firewood or split kindling. That was another problem to deal with in the morning, but in the meantime I decided to grab my notebook and to head up the hill to my parent’s warm abode, and to jot down a poem that had come into my head as I walked, and eventually to sleep in their warm basement.

When my parents returned from their cocktail party they found me scribbling and smoking at their dining-room table, as if I’d never left. I was feeling much better, for my poem pleased me, and also I had decided I had a job. I’d be a clam-digger. My mother didn’t ask about my poem or job, but rather to please clean up all the newspapers on the table, so I did it, after clipping the weather-map from the Times. As I did I idly inquired if the party was fun. They both seemed a little flushed, and I suspected they’d had more than one cocktail.

My mother rhapsodized about some client of my stepfather’s she had met who had opened a place that made sails, in Portland. My mother could be quite dazzling at a party, but she was equally charm-able, and I gathered the businessman had charmed her.

Listening more carefully I learned she had absorbed details of the sail-making business like a sponge, and could even become righteously indignant about people who had caused the businessman a problem and to require a lawyer. Apparently there was some government grant aimed at enticing businesses to Portland, to lower the high unemployment rate,  but some disgruntled employee had tattled about some “i” the businessman forgot to dot or some “t” he neglected to cross, in order to qualify for the government grant. The man found American employees very ungrateful for the work he had brought to their city, and it was then my ears perked up. I immediately assumed the man must be from some foreign place that had Queen Elisabeth on their stamps, and must speak with one of several British accents that my mother could never resist, (even if they weren’t the King’s English). Sure enough, when I inquired I discovered the businessman was an Aussie.

For the most part my stepfather had remained silent, merely nodding and smiling as my mother chattered in her musical voice, but suddenly he turned to me and I realized he hadn’t forgotten me, even at a cocktail party. His face grew serious and he said two dreadful words. “He’s hiring.”

I sat back, a bit stunned. Me? A sail-maker?

Oh well, I hadn’t really wanted to dig clams in January, anyway.

Punky Wood (Part 1) –Defeat–

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”.

https://external-content.duckduckgo.com/iu/?u=https%3A%2F%2Fi.pinimg.com%2Foriginals%2F55%2F44%2F1e%2F55441e70d2212bd9193318475bd9bca8.jpg&f=1&nofb=1

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.”

LOCAL VIEW –First Arctic Blast–

We had our first taste of winter today, with temperatures 15 degrees below normal and reluctant to rise all day and puddles from last night’s rain flat and frozen, and fits of flurries throwing handfuls of white confetti into a stiff breeze, though I saw no reason for confetti. What is there to celebrate? It was a miserable day after yesterday evening’s miserable cold rain.

Last night I faced a night out with good friends, but nearly didn’t go, because, to get to the cheer and the warm hearth of friends, I’d have to venture out into pitch black and pelting, cold rain. It stinks when, in order to have a good time, you must first take a deep breath and run a gauntlet. But that is the definition of winter, in New England.

It is said, “No pain; no gain”, and that is what urges one out, yet at the same time another voice whispers, “No strain; No pain”. And there is much to be said for the second voice. Why risk pneumonia, when you could toast toes by a warm fire?

At some point one is forced to chose between which voice one will listen to. It seems a sort of “tipping point”, or a “fork in the road.” As a writer, often I stay home and am introspective, while others go out. I sometimes stay in even when the weather is balmy. Also as a writer, I often have wound up broke because I stayed home when I should have gone out to work, which later forced me to go out and work lousy jobs in weather others would call insane to work in. Therefore I have a pretty good idea of what both sides of the “tipping point” entail.

In my experience it is almost always better to go out. For example, last night, as I wavered at my front door, there could be no doubt the weather was disagreeable. It was weather best described by Englishmen in London during a North Atlantic gale, when they look out and say, with lordly disapproval, “Simply filthy weather; simply filthy.” Yet two hours later when I stomped back through the same door and hurried to my hearth, I was glad I’d gone. I hadn’t caught pneumonia, and had gained, through the insights of others, an idea I’d never have come up with alone.

One thing that few account for is that the mortal body is capable of ramping up its Adrenalin levels, and altering its entire metabolism, if need be. I noticed my physical frame doing this today. The bitter wind was “lazy” (IE: it cut straight through you, rather than taking the time to go around you) and I was flinching and muttering, “I’m too old for this.” My circulation isn’t as good, and my testosterone levels are lower, than when I was twenty-five. To me that seems a good excuse for staying home by the fire. But, because I’ve been a writer, I’ve worked over a hundred different jobs, and that is no way to earn a pension. So I’m stuck with working when friends have retired. And, because I have to go out when they don’t, I discover what they won’t.

What I saw is that one doesn’t need Viagra to be hot. Apparently something other than testosterone is involved, when the northern body shifts gears in the face of brutal winter. Something in the human frame fights back, when exposed to insults, even when you’re old. It will take science a while to verify this observation, I suppose, but it was undeniable to me: I was warmer after the first nasty blasts of winter hit me than I was when I first saw the forecast.

I didn’t notice how much warmer I was, at first. I walked through my front door after work and pottered about as if it was June, thinking little of it until I went to put wood in the stove. Only then did it occur to me I hadn’t rushed to the fire like a babe to a breast as I came in the house. Contrary as it may sound, bitter breezes made me warmer.

Decades ago I saw the same thing in a different way. A friend complained his wife never got out, and instead stayed at home depressed. In the foolish way that marked my youth, I stuck my nose in the business of others, “to be helpful”. (One friend called me guilty of “dry adultery”: I might not have had sex with friend’s wives, but was prone to emotional meddling.)

My friend was exasperated to a degree where he’d stopped listening to his wife, but I figured that, because I was an artist, I was more sensitive than my pal (who was gruff, tough, and constantly in trouble with the law), and that I would be more able to be sympathetic and empathetic. I believed often that is what emotional people need, in order to escape whatever dilemma they find themselves in.

I was useless. Why? Because it was immediately obvious to me the woman’s problems were primarily caused not by her insensitive, outlaw husband, but by the fact she used him as an excuse to never go out.

Why was it obvious? Hard to explain, but it was like this:

Sometimes your feet are cold because you are sitting too much. What you need to do is stir your blood and get your circulation going. In such a case it does absolutely no good to talk about what caused you to sit, for the longer you talk the longer you stay sitting and the colder your feet become.

Although my friend’s wife very much appreciated the fact I would sit with her and talk with her, she did not like it when I suggested she might benefit if she stopped sitting and talking. In the end I was not “helpful”.

In actual fact the woman helped me far more than I helped her, for she reminded me of myself. Artists often sit and think when they should get up and go. She made me aware a “tipping point” is involved.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to suggest we should outlaw art, because artists sit and think when they should get up and go. (In fact I think too many people get up and go without enough thought.)

Instead I mean to suggest a “tipping point” indicates a balance is involved, and a balance involves two sides. If you succumb to the mentality that takes only one side you are completely out of balance.

At this point we need to define “balance”. In terms of humanity, it is actually a precarious state. Often the people we deem most stable and balanced are knocked completely out of kilter by a feather. For example a bank president may commit suicide when the market crashes. Meanwhile the janitor at the same bank may be the fellow who offers the most help to his fellow employees as the ruined bank closes its doors.

“Balance” is often seen as “security”, which can draw people out of balance. For example, “political correctness” draws people into postures they may not be comfortable with, but which they feel are “safer” stances than what their conscience knows to be Truth. Such compromises seem “balanced” up until Truth jars them with a rude awakening, and they become aware “political correctness” has lured them into being led by some sort of despot, such as Stalin or Hitler. Then what seemed like “balance” abruptly shocks people into the awareness they are miles past the “tipping point”, and are plunging into disaster. This sort of shock is like the first blast of winter into New England. When it hits you, nothing that came before matters. Truth has arrived.

Artists, who have (in theory at least) put Truth ahead of “political correctness”, are less perturbed by such abrupt and shocking arrivals of Truth. They tend to respond more like the Bank Janitor than the Bank President. At some point they faced a “fork in the road” and, as the poet Robert Frost stated, the choice they made “has made all the difference.”

Often I find the biographies of artists as interesting as their art. Not that they had easy lives. Often they faced winters. Van Gough is an example of a a man who lived a rough life, yet he painted Truth which millions, perhaps billions, now admire.

One biography that fascinates me is that of an American master of the genre, “short story”, named William Sydney Porter, who took on the pen-name of “O. Henry”.

What intrigues me about Porter is that he seems to have been more like a person who goes out, than a person who sits by the fire, and therefore he seems unlikely to ever become a writer. But he did like to sit in a bar after work and tell a good tale. Then one thing led to another.

Though Porter’s tale-telling can be seen to gradually develop, (as pieces he sent to newspapers, newspapers which he increasingly was interested in and involved with), he was too practical to depend on writing for his livelihood, and supported himself, and later his wife and daughter, by working as a pharmacist, sheep-herder, cowboy, draftsman, clerk, and teller at a bank.

While working as a teller he apparently strayed from doing things by-the-book, using his heart more than his head, for political and perhaps other reasons. He lost one bank-job when a new political party came into power, and was fired from a second when “irregularities” in his bookkeeping were discovered. In disgrace he move from Austin, Texas to Houston, Texas, and then for the first time focused on writing. He was making headway, getting raises and seeing his newspaper-column become more popular, when Federal Auditors snooped into the doings of the bank back in Austin. They didn’t want to hear any excuses for a former employee who used his heart and not his head; $854.08 were unaccounted for and, roughly two years after he had left Austin, Porter faced five years in jail for embezzlement.

Because he was a man of action, the day before his trial Porter fled to Honduras, where he associated with exiles, coined the phrase “Banana Republic”, and did a lot of work on the collection of intertwined short stories called “Of Cabbages and Kings”, (which was as close as he ever came to writing a novel.) He hoped to make money writing and had made plans for his wife and daughter to join him, but then discovered the tuberculosis (which he knew his wife was suffering from, before he married her) was now killing her. At this point he returned to face five years in jail, to be at her side as she died.

She died, and then he went to jail, where he was valued and worked as a pharmacist. However he still had a daughter to support, and became involved in sneaky ways to make money by writing without people knowing the writer was a jailbird. That is when he adopted the name “O. Henry” (Which some suggest is a condensed version of “Ohio Penitentiary”.) (The name first appeared attached to a charming tale about a hobo who becomes a hero but chooses to remain a hobo, called “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking”. In retrospect the hobo’s love-of-freedom is especially poignant because the writer himself was in jail, though of course readers of that time didn’t know that). “O. Henry” became increasingly popular even before Porter was released from prison, (two years early, “for good behavior”).

What I find fascinating about that part of Porter’s life is that he did not intentionally retire to the fireside to write. In essence he was forced to the “fireside” of a jail-cell, after facing the bitter winter of his wife’s death. Largely he was not a retiring man.

After he was released from prison in Ohio he traveled to Pennsylvania to where his daughter was staying with his in-laws. As a widower and ex-con he did not seem all that accepted or happy, and drank too much. He moved to New York City to be near the market for short stories, and basically drowned himself in work. Porter would write in the morning and conduct research after “the sun passed the yardarms”, with the “research” consisting of visiting restaurants and bars where, rather than telling tales, he often got others to tell him tales, late into the night. Then he’d head home and jot some notes, and work on a tale the next morning, often facing a Friday deadline. He produced a total of 371 tales, some masterpieces, in roughly seven years, before his liver gave out. What is interesting to me is that even while writing so much, he didn’t sit by the fire. By noon he was restless, and had to get out.

It likely impossible to state the effect Porter had during the time he was most productive, when my Grandfather was young. There was no radio or TV, and people were avid readers. My Grandfather’s generation awaited the next “O. Henry” story in magazines and newspaper-Sunday-supplements with the same eagerness my own generation awaited the next song by The Beatles, and it is difficult to translate that eagerness across time. I do not belabor my grandchildren with talk about the Beatles, and my Grandfather never told me why he had eight volumes of O. Henry short stories in the bookshelf by his living-room armchair. But I noticed them. Though the tales were panned by critics of that time (and by some fellow writers as well) they are more than a wonderful window to the attitudes and realities of another time; they contain descriptions of human frailty and nobility that are timeless. When I finally got around to reading them I felt like I’d discovered a gold mine.

However that is not the point of this essay. The point of this essay is to suggest that, sometimes, facing the blasts of winter, men do not merely survive, but become downright prolific, as O. Henry did, facing the winter of his life.

LOCAL VIEW –A Burr’s Blessing–

One gift my parents gave me was a sort of idealism that doesn’t seem like a gift. It can seem like a burr stuck in your hair, as this old world can be hard on idealists. Not only do others disappoint us, but we can disappoint ourselves. For this reason many who started out idealists become cynics; the softhearted become hardhearted; optimists become pessimists; the faithful become faithless.

To me such a response always seemed a weakness, and even a sort of sell-out. What sort of idealist quits just because the going gets tough? One should persevere, and have high hopes:

Of course, being so hopeful and optimistic, even in the face of proof such behavior is unwise, did make me a bit of a sucker and a chump. But my parents again set an example, for even when their idealism went down in flames (in the form of their intensely acrimonious divorce), the same stubborn unwillingness-to-compromise (which perhaps led to the divorce) made them stubbornly unwilling to compromise on their idealism after their divorce. Even in the smoking wreckage of a crashed marriage they stubbornly persisted with their views and insisted they were correct, which I found very embarrassing, as a teenager, but which I also respected as a powerful reality, even though I didn’t understand it. Therefore it is only logical that I would follow in their footsteps, and remain true to the dual-idealism I inherited, despite all evidence idealism was unwise.

For example, most bosses initially felt lucky, when they hired me. I possessed the so-called, “Puritan Work Ethic”, and had high standards for my self, and was an athlete and enjoyed working hard. But bosses discovered I also had high standards regarding the behavior of bosses, which made them feel less lucky and made me look less desirable. Eventually, (and quite often so swiftly my rise and fall was like a yo-yo’s), our employer-employee compromise would become untenable, and divorce (IE: Getting fired or quitting) became unavoidable. As a consequence I worked over a hundred jobs, and have great experience concerning bosses, and have acquired reams of knowledge about all quirks and foibles bosses may have. I also have no pension, for I never found a boss worth a compromise of longer than two years, let alone the soul-selling duration-of-decades required for a pension. As far as I’m concerned, any person collecting a pension is either very lucky or very weak. They are lucky, if they lucked into a worthy boss, and they are weak, if they stayed working all those years for an unworthy boss.

Eventually I discovered self-reliance mattered, and the best boss was my foolish self, and I became “self-employed.”  Of course, once you are “self-employed” you still have bosses, but they are called “customers”. So you have to add another hundred bosses to the total I have worked for. I may not have a pension, but I do know a thing or two about bossy people. In fact I know much more than the fellow collecting a pension, for he compromised and worked for the same boring boss for thirty years, whereas I have worked for two hundred bosses. I deserve some sort of master’s degree. The irony is that the fellow with no experience gets a pension, as I, with all my wisdom, get little respect and no money.

What have I gained? It is a difference traced by the poet William Blake, which led him to call a first book, “Songs Of Innocence“, and a second, “Songs Of Experience.” It is a product of the pain of a burr, like the irritation of a grain of sand in an oyster’s tender places producing a pearl. In effect, it is proof hardship has meaning, and that you are getting something deeply significant out of life’s struggles, other than filthy lucre. It suggests the meaning of life, and of spiritual progress, and of real “gain”, is not measured by money.

One sad thing I’ve seen in those who retire, (in some cases far younger than I), is that despite one [or two or even three] fat pensions, they are often dead within a year or two of retiring. There are of course many exceptions to this rule, but such deaths happen frequently enough to be concerning. It as if such retirees realize they compromised too much, and worked their entire lives for emptiness, and the disillusionment kills them.

I don’t know much about this disillusionment, because I failed to live such a compromised life longer than two years, (and loathed those two years, during which time I joined a union, and discovered I then had two bosses at the same time). However I can speak with authority about how to get fired or quit, and how to never get a pension.

This seemed a totally useless authority to speak with, and a worthless wisdom to own, when I was a not-so-young, penniless man of 37, and still unmarried, and quite lonely. Where others bragged about increases in income, I could only brag about getting by on less and less (so I did so, for a man must brag about something). Even those who liked me tended to laugh at my idealistic attitudes, deeming me a mere mad poet. Therefore they were alarmed when I abruptly announced I was about to marry, and not marry a single woman either, but rather marry a woman with three small children.

To be honest, I saw no evidence even my closest friends thought the marriage was a good idea, or would last as long as a year. To some the idea of a person like myself being even a tenth as responsible as a husband and father has to be was not laughable, because it was too painfully embarrassing to even consider. After all, if I couldn’t even work for a boss, how could I possibly work for a wife?

Fortunately I had met a woman who on some level was as idealistic as I was, and who also didn’t care about money. Not that she didn’t enjoy the good life, when it was possible, but when the good life retreated from the present tense far into the foreseeable future, she was strangely unperturbed. What did she care for more than money? She cared about children and family, and she’d been through hard times that taught her that you can have the delights of children and family without a cent to your name. Consequently money had slipped downwards, in terms of importance, on her inward “list”.

As we talked we discovered we were on the same page, in a way impossible to describe to those who measure with money. We agreed a beer sipped in love was far superior to champagne without love, and agreed about fifty other things, and all that agreeable agreement occurred during the first hour of our first date. This hour astonished me, for usually I found dates painful, and the talk so stilted and ludicrous that I usually wanted to escape the woman more than I wanted to seduce her. But this woman was different. As I recall, we talked non-stop for a solid week, every chance we could, and, rather than wanting to escape, I wanted more.

We eventually agreed that love is so important it deserves a capital “L”, and this “Love” can also be called “God”, and that, compared to God, money doesn’t matter. We also decided to marry, after only a week. But we knew people would think we were crazy for deciding so swiftly, so we didn’t tell anyone else. We waited a whole three more weeks before announcing our decision. Most people still thought we were crazy.

It is one thing to talk the talk, but another to walk the walk. I have a sense my more cynical friends, (and at this point maybe I should demote them to “acquaintances”,) were sitting back amused, awaiting my humbling, as “the shit hit the fan”. And, to be honest, I myself was afraid of the same, for I’d been through humbling and embarrassing infatuations before. But this relationship was different. We deeply disappointed the prophets of doom. Then, as if it wasn’t a big enough challenge to provide for three children, God gifted us with a fourth, and then a fifth.

At this point I should probably answer the question, “If I couldn’t even work for a boss, how could I possibly work for a wife?” The answer was that we were “Pluggers”. We just kept plugging, never sure we’d come up with the next month’s mortgage or even the cash for groceries. Always the work appeared and the money was earned, often at the last possible moment, which was what we expected, and had faith would happen.

In the eyes of some acquaintances our attitude was irresponsible.  It required a faith they lacked. They suffered from a “burr under the saddle” called “insecurity”, and felt that all responsible people should compromise greatly to be “secure”. They stayed with deplorable bosses for “the health insurance”, and for the “pension”, and for other “benefits”, but we were free of such chains and quicksand. Our security was Love with a capital “L”, and while Love may not have given us lemonade when we only needed clean water, we seldom truly suffered, and usually blithely breezed through reefs and shoals, somewhat to the annoyance of those who suffered awful jobs they longed to quit, and who dourly predicted (and perhaps even secretly desired) our certain shipwreck, because we didn’t stick to the jobs they were glued to.

This is not to say we sat back very much at all. Pluggers must plug, and that involves hard work, even when the work does not pay very well. Faith involves far more sweat than sloth does.

I think this is actually a very American attitude, perhaps derived from the experiences of settlers, who horrified the Native Americans by arriving in destitute droves to farm (and destroy) their hunting grounds. America’s “Homestead Act” merely made official a phenomenon that was ongoing.

But such settlers often failed. They were expected to live for five years on their “free” land in order for the government to officially deem their ownership “legal”, and government statistics show roughly half of such settlers could not complete the five years. One sees little material success in characters such as “Pa” in the “Little House On The Prairie” books, as they move from failed homestead to failed homestead.  What impresses me more than success is the amazing lack of security such settlers faced, uprooting themselves from former lives to face American wilderness, and conditions of extreme hardship.

American settlers had great (and often unrealistic) faith in their own ability to produce a lush, bumper crop from, in some cases, semi-arid wastelands. Their attitude was in some ways the opposite of those modern men, many of whom are meekly ensconced in the modern welfare state. Many modern men apparently trust cringing, and distrust daring. But what was this thing I call “a settler’s attitude”?

An “attitude” is often a difficult thing to intellectually describe, and this is especially true because “Pluggers” don’t tend to be intellectual. However that which you cannot say in words can sometimes speak in songs, and the spirit of American settlers echoes in their music, and in their song’s humorous attitude towards misfortune.

For example, In “So long,  It’s Been Good To Know You“, Woody Guthrie sings,

The churches was jammed, and the churches was packed,
An’ that dusty old dust storm blowed so black
Preacher could not read a word of his text,
An’ he folded his specs,

an’ he took up collection,
Said:

So long, it’s been good to know yuh;
So long, it’s been good to know yuh;
So long, it’s been good to know yuh.
This dusty old dust is a-gettin’ my home,
And I got to be driftin’ along.

In the older ballad “Sweet Betsy From Pike,” a verse croons,

Well they soon reached the desert where Betsy gave out 
And down in the sand she lay rollin’ about 
While Ike in great tears looked on in surprise 
Sayin’, “Betsy get up; you’ll get sand in your eyes.”

Singin’, Too-rally-too-rally-too-rally-ray… 

But one song that (to me) best encapsulates the attitude of settlers springs from the unlikely root of a priest of the Church of England, George Herbert (1593-1633). Among other things he collected proverbs from other lands (“outlandish”), and seven years after he died his collection was published, and we derive from it some sayings we still use, such as “His bark is worse than his bite.” One saying we no longer use is, “To him that will, ways are not wanting,” because it morphed into, “Where there’s a will there’s a way,” which first appeared in the English publication “The New Monthly Magazine” in 1823. It was then picked up by the humorist singer-songwriter “Handsome Harry Clifton” (1832-1872) and became a song heard in English music halls in the mid 1860’s, and then crossed the Atlantic and moved with settlers out into the prairies, after the American Civil War.

This life is a difficult riddle
For how many people we see
With faces as long as a fiddle
That ought to be shining with glee.
I am sure in this world there are plenty
Of good things enough for us all
And yet there’s not one out of the twenty
But thinks that his share is too small.

Chorus:
Then what is the use of repining,
For where there’s a will there’s a way,
And tomorrow the sun may be shining
Although it is cloudy today.

Do you ever hear tell of the spider
That tried up the wall hard to climb?
If not, just take that as a guider;
You’ll find it will serve you in time.
Nine times it tried hard to be mounting
And every time it stuck fast
But it tried hard again without counting
And of course it succeeded at last

Chorus

Do you think that by sitting and sighing
You’ll ever obtain all you want?
It’s cowards alone that are crying
And foolishly saying “I can’t”
It’s only by plodding and striving
And laboring up the steep hill
Of life that you’ll ever be thriving
Which you’ll do if you’ve only the will.

Then what is the use of repining,
For where there’s a will there’s a way,
And tomorrow the sun may be shining
Although it is cloudy today.

Laura Ingalls Wilder  (of “Little House On The Prairie” fame), used the above song to happily conclude her most harrowing book, which described a railway-town’s near brush with starvation when blizzards and deep drifts cut the town off from trains, from January until May, during a particularly brutal Dakota winter.

But what is fascinating about the attitude Wilder describes is that it was not the typically American, Horatio Alger (1832-1899), concept of “rags to riches”, epitomized by Alger’s best-seller “Ragged Dick” (1868). Rather it was opposed to such ideals of material success, for “The Long Winter” basically describes an entire town of fugal, moral individuals reduced from riches to rags. Their reward was not a fortune, nor a pension, but merely to survive to see another spring. And what do they do in that springtime? They sing.

This Plugger’s-response resembles the “Whos of Whoville”, in Theodor Seuss Geisel’s (1904-1991) best-seller “How The Grinch Stole Christmas.” (1957). After the “Grinch” had stolen every materialistic proof of Christmas, the Who’s still gathered to sing. I can remember sitting in my father’s lap on Christmas morning in 1957 and having that brand-new tale read to me. Over a decade later, as a teenager, I’d argue (only partially in jest) that Geisel (AKA “Dr. Seuss”) was a great American poet, whereas most of my fellow poets, in our snide groups at snide colleges, sucked the split lips of our artificial suffering with a moribund mentality that produced only snivel. Dr. Seuss, despite the genuine suffering of his own life (his chronically-ill wife eventually committed suicide) produced a bright, cheerful children’s poem that influenced America. Why did it have such influence? Because it described what Laura Ingalls Wilder also described in her best-selling children’s book, “The Long Winter”.

And what is that?

It is that there is something worth singing about in simply surviving to see another day. Life is beautiful and precious, in and of itself, irregardless of whether you succeed or fail. In fact the burr of suffering seems strangely beneficial, for it proves that Life persists in spite of adversity, and that Life is indomitable and unquenchable and independent.

Laura Ingalls Wilder left the third verse of Handsome Harry Clifton’s song out, when she quoted it to end “The Long Winter.” The third verse goes:

Some grumble because they’re not married,
And cannot procure a good wife;
Whilst others they wish they had tarried
And long for a bachelor’s life.
To me it is very bewild’ring,
Some grumble, (it must be in fun),
Because they have too many children,
And others because they have none.

Then what is the use of repining,
For where there’s a will there’s a way,
And tomorrow the sun may be shining
Although it is cloudy today.

The fact of the matter is that there is always a reason to complain, if you look for it, but if you take that road you may miss many reasons to smile. On the Path one faces a choice between complaining or entertaining. In a sense it is a situation that reminds me of a Junior High School dance, (which were gruesome experiences, for me).

I would stand on one side of the gym, with lots and lots of beautiful young woman on the other side, and be miserable. Lord! If you could put this old man’s mind back in that boy’s body, I would have skipped across that gym happily and asked girl after girl to dance. Sadly, I instead found reasons to complain. In fact I was so miserable I often wondered why in the world I ever went to such events.

Usually, because I was prone towards being a one-woman-man, I ignored all sorts of opportunity, because there was a particular girl I was fixated on, and she usually was already dancing with some far taller boy who actually grew peach-fuzz on his upper lip, and had grown above five feet tall. I was four-foot-ten, which put me at a disadvantage, [except in “slow dances”, when my face would have been buried between young woman’s breasts.] [Man, Oh Man! If I could put my old man’s mind back in that boy’s body, I don’t think I would have called being-short a “disadvantage!”]

Probably I should leave this subject, before I get myself in trouble. I only bring up dances because in a way it is like looking for a job. Just as I hung back in the Junior High dances, finding reasons to complain despite the lovely girls across the gym, I found reasons, when young, to avoid even attempting to look for work.

Rather than a particular girl across a gym I was infatuated by, who made all other girls worth disdaining, there was a certain job I was infatuated by, that made all other jobs worth disdaining. And what was that job? It was “poet.”

Now the funny thing is that, when you are looking for work, you never see employers looking for a “poet” in the Want Ads. A poet wants to express himself, but that is his work, and not another’s. Others have other work, different from “self-expression.” Therefore, if a poet expects a paycheck, he had better learn to sing while washing dishes.

This was something I learned before I got married. However I would be remiss if I didn’t say I was thirty-seven before I became so wise. Earlier it was agony to push myself out and apply for a job. It was like crossing the gym and asking the most undesirable girl in the universe to dance, and to be honest I sometimes couldn’t do it. I’d rather be homeless and sleep in my car.

How odd it seems that I later found it fun to apply for jobs. I didn’t care if I got the job or not; I just found it fun to fill out the job application in a poetic way, and then watch the face of the fellow considering me as he glanced over the form, interviewing me. Even if I wasn’t the man for the job, the interviewer had fun rejecting me. We’d laugh and tell stories, and I like to think the interviewer never had so much fun rejecting an applicant, before he met me.

I learned this art the one time in my life I was on unemployment, in 1985. I’d only receive $32.00 a week, (or nine hours of pay, at minimum wage, $3.35/hour at that time), and in order to receive this paltry amount I had to provide proof, to the government of New Mexico, that I had looked for work in three places the prior week.

I never actually applied for the job of brain surgeon at the local hospital, but I did apply at other absurdly impossible places, and discovered it can be fun to ask, even if rejection is inevitable.

This was a revelation to me. It was like discovering it is good fun to cross the gym and ask a glorious girl who would never dance with a shrimp like you for a dance, and finding out, even though she will not dance, that you can talk and laugh and learn, all the same. And rarely, (but often enough to lift your spirits), the girl will decide, what the heck, she will dance, just one dance. In like manner, some employers will sometimes hire you, if only for just one day.

“Just one day of work” is not enough to satisfy a person who feels insecure without a pension and other benefits, but it is a bonanza for a drifter living hand-to-mouth. The person who wants “security” and “certainty” misses the bonanzas the insecure understand. As odd as it sounds, the people who are “secure” and “have it made” are missing bonanza after bonanza after bonanza. Blessed are the poor.

Most “Pluggers” don’t intentionally seek to live “on the edge.” They simply were born into childhoods without a silver spoon in sight, and things such as “security” and “certainty” have not been their lot in life. They may hope for the perks of the privileged, the same way many hope they will win the lottery, but such things are like an apple dangled in front of a donkey to keep it plodding forward. Most Pluggers doubt they’ll ever really reach and taste that apple, and therefore the real reason they have the strength to keep plodding on can’t be from the apple they never reach, but rather from the bonanzas they experience, which the “privileged” know little or nothing about. Blessed are the poor.

There is something counter-intuitive about the statement “Blessed are the poor”, for we tend to associate the word “blessing” with wealth, bounty, riches. Wrong.

This is difficult to say, and will sound clumsy as I write it, but it has been my experience that the poor are richer than the rich. Why? Because nothing matters more than contact with the One who blessings come from. In fact blessings themselves have no worth, compared to the One who gives them.

In other words, the Plugger has a heightened sense of what constitutes a “blessing”, due to living so close to the edge. One doesn’t truly appreciate a glass of water until one has been parched by the desert sun. Therefore a person with “security” has a dulled awareness, whereas a Plugger has his awareness heightened. Not that some Pluggers can’t become so discouraged that they become bitter people, but many experience “coincidences” and develop what the “privileged” deem superstition, but which the Plugger feels, often in an unspoken way,  is a communion with the One from whom all blessings flow.

I should probably leave this subject, before I get myself in trouble. I only bring it up to explain the difference between putting your faith in a pension, and putting your faith in something far better, something besides money, something I vaguely called “freedom”, waving my arms inarticulately to the west and pointing at a cloud.

Most Pluggers have a hard time intellectually stating their stance. After all, most are responding to circumstances beyond their control. To people who have a cushion of wealth, and the leisure to construct a stance, a Plugger seems like a person who can’t take a stand or even make a point. A Plugger points like a weather vane, constantly shifting. For a Plugger does not think man controls the climate; he responds to it. He is like the captains of the sailing ships of yore, very respectful-of and responsive-to the wind, whereas the man with money and security and a pension thinks he has a stink-pot cabin-cruiser which can plow straight upwind and ignore all weathers.

Now, if you capitalize the words “wind” and “weathers” in the above paragraph, you can perhaps glimpse how a Plugger might be responding to their Creator, in a manner which might be inarticulate and even unconscious, but which the Creator might notice. And, if you were a Creator whose nature was love, who would you respond to? The Plugger responding to You, or the wealthy with all their attention away on their portfolio, counting the stocks and bonds in their pension like a miser counts cold coins?

This is not to say Pluggers don’t long for comfort, and a life of ease, but they can sing and dance even with such gratification indefinitely postponed.

 

This brings me back to the early days days of my marriage, which I now fondly recall, but which were not so easy to struggle through, at the time. What is good to recall is the amazing faith my wife and I had that we would “get by”, and how that faith was not misplaced, for we did “get by”, (though I should perhaps use the words “squeaked by.”)

Now that I am older and wiser I look back and roll my eyes. I say rude things, like, “What the fuck were we thinking?” Yet we sailed through situations like an elderly woman on a tricycle passing through a terrible ten-car-pile-up on a major downtown intersection without a hair in her bun jarred out of place. In retrospect one cannot look at such history without mentioning unscientific things such as “guardian angels” or “the grace of God” or even, “Manifest Destiny”. However, somewhat amazingly, we each thought we were very practical, and the impractical one was our beloved spouse.

In retrospect our quarrels were delightful, (for our reconciliations created two delightful babies), but, moving on to the specifics, our quarrels were about very interesting stuff, although I don’t imagine the elite really think about such stuff. Unless you have ever faced an empty refrigerator, you cannot deem groceries a topic worth much attention, but I and my young wife had a yearly quarrel, which I will dub the “Harvest Quarrel.”

During the summer we had too much work: I, as a landscaper, and my wife, as the small town “Recreation Director” of the local playground and swimming pool. As winter approached her work vanished, as did mine, (after I made a final bundle raking leaves). We were shifting from having plenty of groceries for our three, then four, then five children, to having none. The stress of this situation resulted in the yearly “Harvest Quarrel.”

The quarrel had two fascinating steps, wherein at first my my wife displayed a flippant disregard for groceries, and then I myself displayed the flippant disregard.

The first step involved the fact that, even after working in the gardens of others all day, I always found time to have a garden of my own. Besides producing a paycheck, I produced actual food.  I would proudly dump dirty produce in my wife’s clean kitchen, and she wasn’t always appreciative. Some of my fresh produce went into delicious dinners, but a shocking (to me) amount seemed to barely pause in the house before heading out to the compost pile.

I had an old-fashioned belief that my wife should be like my mother and grandmother, who had Great-Depression-aversions to seeing even a scrap of food wasted. My grandmother was especially good at making the labor involved look easy, like something she was doing on the side with her little finger, while focused on a more interesting conversation, either with a person working with her, or on the radio. She preserved food while berating the Red Sox for losing again, her work deft yet unconscious, like a taxi driver manipulating through intense city traffic while discussing politics.

During summer’s surplus, when food was cheap, my grandmother canned vegetables in glass jars, or pickled them, or made a sugary jams of fruits. Refrigeration was not necessary. She knew all the old tricks for preserving food, such as corning beef or turning cabbage to sauerkraut, and where to store onions as opposed to where to store potatoes, and had various pantries and cellars delegated for the storage of food. By the time winter rolled around she was ready.  Children were incorporated into this bustle, and I don’t recall grumbling much about it, and at times enjoyed it. My mother might stop at a farmer’s market and score a bargain on a big basket of past-prime shell beans, and this meant I’d sit with my siblings on the back porch shelling them, separating the bad beans from the good, talking about whatever, watching the twittering chimney swifts soar overhead as summer clouds built in the sky.

If there was any grumbling involved, it was about wasting food. Woe unto the child who didn’t finish their dinner. Garbage went to the pig, (or, if you had no pig, to the pig farmer, who made money on the side picking up your garbage), and when the pig was slaughtered  “everything was used but the squeal.”

So much was this constant activity part of my grandmother’s make-up that even when she was old and my grandfather had saved enough to allow her to be a lady of leisure, she could become restless. When the herring were swimming upstream in the spring she seemed a bit offended no men brought her pails of silver fish for her to salt down in big crock-pots.

My wife was not the same. If I plunked a pail of fish down in her kitchen she did not look the slightest bit delighted. The same went for heaps of grubby carrots or dirty potatoes. Only occasionally would she make some jellies or jams, seemingly more for amusement than out of any sense of necessity, and when I brought baskets of red and green tomatoes in before the first fall freeze they sat around on just about every downstairs windowsill, ripening and sometimes rotting, on their way to salads or sauces or the compost pile, but never to canning jars.

This rubbed my fur the wrong way at times. Call it my Yankee heritage if you will, but I just felt winter was a danger we should prepare for, and always was very busy splitting and stacking wood in the fall. My wife could make me a little crazy, for she wouldn’t even rush out to shop before a major winter storm. She preferred to shop right after the storm, and the one time I accompanied her I could see her point; after a storm the store was wonderfully quiet and there were no lines at the register. I could also see her point about tomato sauce; it was much easier to pick up a jar at the market than to can it yourself. All the same, it just didn’t seem right.

I got my revenge by rubbing her fur the wrong way, in my own manner. This occurred when my landscaping was officially ended by the first fall of snow. Even if there were still leaves on lawns, they were buried by white, so I’d put my rakes away and sit by the warm fire, and gaze dreamily out the window, working on a poem about falling snow. After months of hard work it felt good to just compose, but it drove my wife crazy. We had no income, and I was just sitting there, nibbling an eraser. She’d interrupt my composing with some inane question, such as, “What about groceries?” I’d say, “I thought you just bought groceries yesterday.” She’d respond, “But what about next week?” I’d heave a deep sigh, for I knew it was time for our yearly Harvest Quarrel.

It did no good to say “calm down”, for those two words never work, and indeed often have a strangely opposite effect. It also did no good to point out that if she had canned like my grandmother she’s have no worries about groceries because she’d have months of food on the shelves, because if I said that she’d just point out that if I was like my grandfather I’d have a job that lasted through the winter. Neither did it do any good to wax spiritual and preach that we should have faith in God, because she would open her Bible to “Proverbs” and quote, “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man“. Lastly, it was equally unhelpful to suggest that if I was left alone to complete my poem about falling snow the result might be a one-hit-wonder that would make us rich, for she would just say I had already written a hundred wonders, and I should be out selling them.

She gave me no peace, and became a complete burr-under-the-saddle. My Dad advised me women look better if you “make them lively”, and I was succeeding in making her lively. (She became especially lively if I used the word “harangue.”) What I actually wanted to do is write about the peace of falling snow, and find a rhyme for the word “silver”, but it was always obvious that only way I was going to get the peace and quiet necessary was if I went out into the snow and drove through it. That was always the conclusion to the Harvest Quarrel.

What then happened always amazed me. I’d very soon come clumping back into the house with snowy boots, shoot my wife a smug look, and say, “I start work at six tomorrow morning. Happy now?” Then I’d go back to the fire, pick up my uncompleted poem about falling snow, and again begin nibbling my eraser, well aware my wife was itching with curiosity.

What amazed me was the ease with which I found work. There had been other times in my life work wasn’t to be had, and I’d roll my eyes to God wondering what He expected me to do.  Other times I rolled my eyes to heaven with a different, happier expression, when I found work with amazing ease, and these were those other times: I’d look down a heartless street steeling my nerve to go to business after business, expecting to experiencing painful rejection after painful rejection, but the very first place would hire me. It happened with surprising frequency, and always felt like the part of a cartoon where someone charges a locked door, lowering their shoulder to smash it down, and just as they reach the door someone opens it.

Not that the jobs were good ones, but I’d lived on the edge so long that heights no longer bothered me. Where some fret about a pension thirty years in the future, I was more concerned about today, and more willing to let tomorrow take care of itself. Also I was less sensitive about rejection, less prone to burst into tears when a job wasn’t available (although that might be an interesting tactic), and less willing to morbidly dwell upon the offence of being refused. I was more curious about other people and midst this curiosity was more able to utterly forget myself and my own problems. Perhaps I was like a sailor who has seen his ship can come through a storm unscathed, and who no longer feels he can only sail in sunny weather.

In fact, when I looked in the mirror, I realized I had changed. When I walked into a business my demeanor was different, switched from overly sensitive and doubtful to cheerful and confident. Nor was it an act. I definitely had in some way matured, and in some ways I now got jobs too swiftly; I now liked job interviews, and, when I had been happily contemplating a couple weeks of interesting discussions with managers over coffee, it could be disappointing to only experience one interview, before getting hired.

It did puff my ego a little to be able to assuage my wife’s worry about groceries so quickly, but it was hard to be too swelled up, as the pay was usually so minuscule that it took some adroit budgeting to make it to spring. We’d have to run up a tab until April, wherever we could. Also, when I sat and thought about it, I really couldn’t take much credit for changing. The “School Of Hard Knocks” had matured me.

But who was the professor? This question seemed more interesting to contemplate than my poem about falling snow, and the page of the notebook in front of me filled with stray doodles, and the scribbled numbers of sketched budgets and altered schedules.

Such a silent guide You are that I never
Knew it was You leading me to follow
Your lead. But black sheep are not so clever
As they believe. When my heart grew hollow
I turned away, and thought I was leading
Myself, but who is really the professor
When slings and arrows leave students bleeding
In life’s School Of Hard Knocks? Yet how tender
You are; how patient, as with the pace of snails
I learned. I called my guide, “my own Free Will”,
But captains are not the ones who fill sails
Like fat bellies. I blundered on until
My free will finally learned how to dance.
Your silent love is what leads this romance.

I should probably stop there, but need to add a coda to finalize the theme about “burrs”.

I think that one thing that makes the attitude of a Plugger so much more upbeat than that of a worrier, (who frets at a threat to a pension far in the future), is a Plugger’s  simple discovery that good things come in bad packages. A Navajo friend once wrote, “Boot camp is a very good thing to have happen only once in your life,” which is an essay in only fifteen words; IE: Certain discipline may be as palatable as cod-liver-oil, but turns out to make you feel better in the end. The pains, bad tastes, foul smells, and itchy burrs are the curriculum of the School Of Hard Knocks, whether or not you believe there is a Professor in charge of how such discipline is dispensed.

Once you have been through such burrs even once, and see that you more than survived, but were actually strangely matured, then burrs in your future seem less repugnant. You are made able to face situations, which once filled you with dread, without fear, or with far less fear. Not that you don’t know enough to come in out of the rain, but if you must stay out you are singing in the rain.

When I walked into a business my demeanor was utterly different when I was forty, completely changed from an overly sensitive and doubtful 18-year-old’s. Some jobs were demeaning, such as folding and collating pages of inane pamphlets containing bosh and humbug, but I could sing in such rain. My fellow workers tended to be “temps” (short for “Temporary Contract Labor”) who worked for less than the regular workers, without benefits, and the regular workers tended to resent temps. But temps were interesting people to talk to, for they tended to be down on their luck, and usually there is a good story behind a downfall. However despite their downfall, and despite being exploited by bosses and disdained by regular workers, temps didn’t retreat in self-pity, nor expect welfare and charity, but rather were the sort who would work a rotten job to claw their way out of their poverty. They were true Pluggers, and I saw a hidden benefit in jobs that had no benefits, for I got to interrogate and interview interesting Pluggers I otherwise would have only a slight chance of ever meeting. The odd thing was some of these people had no idea anyone might find them worth interrogating and interviewing; my interest was something that lit them up; they blossomed under the feeble sunshine of my innocent, simpleton queries. Such a flowering, under the dingy light of forty watt bulbs, made me look over my shoulder, for I knew I’m not so bright, and I wondered why their faces lit up. From whence came the light? It intrigued me, yet, even as this intriguing stuff occurred, all we were doing was folding and collating pamphlets of guff.

This is not to say I didn’t yearn to be out in the falling snow like a boy yearns to escape Algebra class, but so did the other temps; you could see it in the longing light in their eyes as they passed a window. We were all in it together, and there was a sort of camaraderie reminiscent of that seen in soldiers in deplorable circumstances, which led Wilfred Owen to write, “I too have seen God through mud.”

This brings me back to what I stated earlier, which was, (in case you have forgotten), “There is something worth singing about in simply surviving to see another day. Life is beautiful and precious, in and of itself, irregardless of whether you succeed or fail. In fact the burr of suffering seems strangely beneficial, for it proves that Life persists in spite of adversity, and that Life is indomitable and unquenchable and independent.”

The problem with such a realization is that it robs you of some motivation. Once you realize you already have what is most valuable, namely Life, what more do you need? Why even get a job, let alone a pension? Beethoven proved beautiful music doesn’t even require the ability to hear. Nothing is necessary for happiness but Life.

Fortunately Life does contain burrs, which direct us. Your beloved will bring you a concern which, if you have a heart, you will respond to.

Just as my young wife brought up concerns, disturbing my content as I sat by the fire contemplating falling snow, she could disturb my content as I enjoyed folding and collating pamphlets of guff, by urging me to get a better job. Even when minimum wages were raised from $3.35/hour when we met to $4.25/hour when she was first pregnant, it wasn’t enough.  It wasn’t that we were greedy; we were running-up-a-tab at the market, and on our utility bills, even with me working full-time. Running-up-a-tab was a parachute that slowed our decent, enabling us to survive until spring,  (when I’d make $10.00/hour landscaping). But if you made too little in the winter your parachute would be too small, and when you hit spring you’d be up to your neck.

Therefore I, (and indeed most “temps”), required “overtime” to get by. Once you worked over 40 hours your pay would be “time-and-a-half”, (shifting from 4.25/hour to 6.38/hour.) I freely confessed this requirement when I was first hired, during the initial job-interview, not minding much if being so demanding meant I wouldn’t be hired. Yet sometimes it was what got me hired. The boss had some job he urgently needed done in a big hurry, and he desired people who would work overtime, but his regular employees not only might be unwilling to work extra hours, but might have the “benefit” of an earned vacation coming up. In such situations “temps” stepped in to save the day, but, once the day was saved, “temps” would be promptly laid-off. Unemployment may seem a cruel reward for a job-well-done, but I could only fold and collate so long before the work got stale, and I tended to depart such jobs whistling, and looking ahead eagerly to the next chapter.

If I was in the mood to complain then looking for work would have been a burr, and getting laid-off would have been a burr, and my wife’s concern would have been a burr, and I could have been very sour. And I confess there were times I was sour, usually first thing on Monday morning. However I did notice my mood was mysteriously better by Monday’s midday, and a hundred times better at age forty than it had been at age eighteen. Furthermore, being in a better mood about burrs seemed to bring benefits hard to explain. It made sense that an employer might be more likely to hire a cheerful person than a person who radiated shyness and fear, but I seemed to sense a more amazing aspect was involved.

Call it a superstition if you wish, but I felt the “burrs” were actually the prodding of a Good Shepherd’s crook.

It is said God can be hard as steel and soft as butter. The earlier times in my life, when I couldn’t find work no matter how hard I tried, seemed a sort of hard-as-steel time of tough love, as I was educated by the School Of Hard Knocks. For some reason it didn’t make me feel angry at God, but rather utterly dependent, like a small child wearing pajamas with feet. However I also felt that was the normal state of the cruel world. I didn’t expect any soft-as-butter stuff, and was deeply mystified when I went through a time when I was hired wherever I applied.

One autumn, after my wife and I had been through our typical Autumnal Quarrel, it occurred to me, as I stomped out the front door, that it would make life easier if I got a job within walking distance of my house. Both my truck and my wife’s van were old clunkers, and it seemed likely I could save both on gas-money, and on the bother of dealing with break-downs, if I didn’t commute. The problem was that I lived in a small town with few businesses, and the economy was poor. But a friend had told me I might try one place that hired temps for the Christmas Rush. It was a New-Agey place I wouldn’t ordinarily consider, a business that bought herbs and spices in bulk quantities, and broke them down into small packets and jars to sell to retailers.

I figured I’d test my luck; if I was on a streak of getting hired the first place I applied, I might as well try a place roughly a half mile from my front door.  I walked in and filled out an application there. My luck held. I had barely walked back into my house when the phone rang, and the owner asked if I could walk back for an interview. It was a bit of a drag to have to make a U-turn and walk back when I was planning to sit by the fire, but burrs are burrs.

I got the job, of course, but the interview struck me as wonderfully bizarre. The first question I was asked was, “Did you know a mad poet from Harvard named X?”

It just so happened I did know X, and for a time had considered myself a close friend of X’s, over a quarter century in the past when I associated with such crazies, and wasn’t a responsible father of five. I had been a senior in high school and X was a senior at Harvard, and we associated with pot-smoking intellectuals and had amazing conversations about wildly speculative things that one doesn’t usually bring up, at a job interview. To be honest, the question seemed a trick question, and I became very guarded. But honesty compelled me to answer, “Yes, I knew X”.

The second question was, “Do you know what happened to him?”

X was one of those flamboyant people who you may not want to partner with, but who dares things you don’t dare, and goes places you don’t go, and therefore, even though you don’t want to join them, you want to know where their flamboyance led them. I too was very curious, (and secretly fearful X had died in the horrible AIDs epidemic of the 1980’s), but could only answer my future boss with, “I don’t know. I last saw him in 1976, and our last phone-call was in 1984. Later I heard from a friend that he had headed south to join the Sufis of Washington D.C., around 1985, but in the decade since I’ve heard nothing.”

My future boss looked very disappointed, but hired me and told me show up at nine the next morning to learn the ropes of the herbs and spice business. He arose, and I arose, and it seemed the interview was over, but then, as if to explain something, he hesitated, and then added, “X told me you were the greatest poet since Shakespeare.” Throttled by astonishment, I couldn’t think of how to reply. I’m not sure what I said. Likely it was something dismissive. Then I walked home through the snow.

That was a strange walk, in the falling snow. I mean, how many job interviews do you walk into, for some simple job such as packing herbs and spices, without any sort of recommendation, where you get an unasked-for recommendation from someone you lost contact with over a decade in the past, who might even be dead? Not that the recommendation that I was “the greatest poet since Shakespeare” had anything to do with packing herbs and spices. I’d long ago learned poetry had little to do with feeding yourself, let alone feeding a wife and five children.

I’ll confess the strange interview did stir a hope in me that our interview was one of those “chance meetings” you read about in the lives of authors and poets, wherein they are “discovered”, and rise “from rags to riches” overnight, publishing some sort of “one-hit-wonder”.  But this was not the case. We never spoke of X or of poetry again. However there was a strange, unspoken understanding: We had shared-roots in a wild past when mad poets were especially free, and didn’t need to work Real Jobs.

We did have some interesting talks, but I was far more interested in him than he was in me. I learned that when young he had a vision of learning of herbs and spices that could be wonder drugs, perhaps even finding a herb which cured cancer, and that he had labored long and hard, studying botany at Harvard and even travelling to the Amazon, seeking herbal mysteries, but that when push came to shove, and he had a wife and daughter to support, such study didn’t pay the bills. The herbs and spices that paid the bills tended to be mundane things like powdered Cinnamon and Garlic. To make a living he imported bulk quantities of things not locally grown, to sell to people who required smaller amounts.

Someday I’ll hopefully do a better job of describing what a wonderful job I lucked into, because I was too lazy to fix my limping truck and become an ordinary commuter. But for now I’ll give a couple examples of how wonderful the job was.

One of his best sellers was cinnamon. He sold several types, and four-inch-sticks and three-inch-sticks, but most people wanted the powdered stuff. It came in two-hundred pound barrels.  Most households, when they buy powdered cinnamon, want to buy one or two ounces. A restaurant will desire perhaps a pound, and a busy doughnut shop ten, and even a frantic bakery will desire at most twenty-five. No one wants to pay the price of two-hundred pounds, even though the wholesaler basically doubles the price, selling to the retailer. My job as a muscular poet was to man-handle barrels most cooks can ‘t budge, and then break-down the contents to smaller packages.

The second example is bay leaves. All cooks understand the positive effect a leaf or two of bay can have on a soup or stew. However bay does not arrive from Turkey a leaf or two at a time. It arrives in huge, fragrant bales, weighing at least fifty pounds.

My first job, my first day of work, was to manhandle a huge bale of bay-leaves, and then break it down, and amidst the sweet, rustling aroma of this occupation I did not think of the customer, who would receive tiny packets, but rather I was transported to Turkey. Perhaps it was only because I, as a landscaper and farmer, was aware a lot of hard work went into picking and drying and baling and exporting the leaves, but the scent as I worked was evocative of a landscape I had never seen and of people I had never met. Images drifted through my imagination. It was much better than folding and collating pamphlets.

My family approved when I came home smelling of bay, but I was less popular when I had to deal with enormous amounts of garlic powder. For the most part my work involved around twenty everyday herbs, which likely produced around ninety-five percent of the business’s profit. But besides those twenty barrels of herbs there were perhaps a hundred others, holding mysterious herbs I had never heard of. When I filled orders I was swift to learn where to go to find Cinnamon, but sometimes at the bottom of the order there would be an item I had never heard of. Then I would have to search through the barrels in the back of the warehouse for a pound of some such thing as, “Saint John’s Wort”.

My boss’s wife was a bit scornful of such items, because “turnover” was so slow. If you bought a bale of some obscure herb it might be five or even ten years before it was sold, but my boss would not listen to his wife, and would reorder. He seemed to like being an herb-and-spice-place that had the items other places lacked. Also his insistence seemed to be like my own poetry; a thing he did even if it wasn’t profitable; a thing connected to his original reason for focusing on herbs and spices.

I could sense, my first day on the job, that I should be careful when bringing up a question such as, “What is Saint Johns Wort good for”? My boss’s wife would snap, “Absolutely nothing,”  and my boss would look meek, and button his lip. It was obvious she was a burr to him, just as my wife was a burr to me when I wrote poems about falling snow rather than looking for work. And he was a burr to her, by insisting on restocking, just as I was a burr to my wife by insisting on writing poems.

I think it was during the first week that I discovered that, among the obscure items he had in the barrels in the back of his warehouse, he had burrs. Or not the burrs, but the root of the plant that made the burrs, called “Burdock”.

As a landscaper I tended to see Burdock as a rank and obnoxious weed. This was not only because, when my daughters happened to get burrs in their hair, tears resulted, but also because the plant could spring up with amazing vigor, with a tap root which made carrots seem small, and leaves nearly as fat and wide as Rhubarb’s. Here is a Burdock jumping up between my garden’s Rhubarb and Asparagus:

It is hard to be fond of such a rank and persistent weed. My Asparagus and Rhubarb have strong roots which are perennial; there are cases where grandchildren have fed off the plants their grandfather planted fifty years earlier, but burdock is a plant that can invade such a long-standing patch and, with roots equally vigorous, weaken the desired crop. It is hard to see such a burr as desirable.

Yet my new boss was making a small profit selling such roots. This of course piqued my interest, but unfortunately I asked my question when his wife was in earshot, and heard the brusque reply, “Absolutely nothing is good about Burdock.”

I already had concluded that, but was trying to escape my prejudice. My escape occurred soon, due to the fact the warehouse had a tiny “retail shop” in the front of the warehouse. It produced less than 1% of the business’s profit, but I had the feeling my new boss liked talking to people about herbs and spices, and the “retail shop” was more of an excuse to talk than it was a way to make money. However he was out, and I happened to be the only person available, so I had to deal with a customer though I knew next to nothing about herbs and spices.

The customer was a lady from Japan, where burdock root is often used in their cuisine. However she was not looking for fresh and tender roots, suitable for cuisine, but dried roots, for a tea that she claimed had amazing benefits. I became her student, as she praised burdock, but I became her professor, when I told her it didn’t need to be imported from Japan.  After I sold her a pound of the dried root, we stepped outside and I pointed out a few examples of the invasive weed.

Some businessmen might think this a bad policy, for she would have no need to buy dried roots, if she knew she might harvest them from her own yard. All I can say is she did return, from time to time, over the next five years. For that is how long I lasted at this job as a “temp.” It was not a steady job, but one I could count on being steady before Christmas.

As I stated before, it would take another post to tell the tales of this on-again-off-again job. But this post is about the benefits of burrs.

Now it is twenty-four years later, and I am running a Childcare, and part of our haphazard curriculum is a course on “the benefits of Burdock”. Usually I am not officially on duty when this class is taught, but kids find the sight of an old man working in the garden more interesting than what my staff has planned, and they often come drifting over to pester me.  Because my hard-working staff can use a break, I often involve the children in my work, (at times having them cheerfully make mincemeat of child-labor-laws, for example when I have to move a hundred bricks). Other times, for example when I am weeding, I weed less, and create a spontaneous curriculum involving what weeds are very poisonous, such as buttercups, and what weeds are edible, such as chickweed. At some point I always seem to involve them in digging burdock from the garden, and saving the roots.

These roots must be washed:

And then, (after trouble which always occurs when small boys have control of a hose), I show the children how to remove the bitter outer bark of burdock root from the slightly-sweet inner root:

Then they munch. I have a rule, regarding wild foods, which states that they are allowed to spit out anything they don’t like, which is a freedom they seem to enjoy. (Also I become very stern, and put on my most ferocious glower, regarding eating any wild thing without first asking me if it is edible.)

I’ve learned there is no accounting for children’s taste. The most fussy eater may demonstrate a peculiar fondness for some odd plant like Burdock, while the most voracious child may detest the same plant. Also a child who initially spits out a plant may, after watching his small peers munch away and ask me for second helpings, be seen surreptitiously picking up the root he cast away and giving it another chance, or, if he can’t find it, may whine to me for a second helping. Lastly I’ve discovered a sure-fire way to get kids interested is to tell them they won’t like the plant, because “only grown-ups like it.”

I don’t talk much about the medicinal benefits of a plant like Burdock, that I first heard about from the lady from Japan. For one thing, our society seems too focused on pharmaceuticals, and for another thing, the ownership of such knowledge seems a gift to me, and I am not particularly gifted in that regard.

I’ve known people who have an uncanny and often unconscious ability to prepare salads and stews that make people feel better, and cause the recipients to state “you are a natural chef” or “you put love in your cooking”, without thinking the cook is an herbalist or some sort of witch-doctor. But I sense a gift in such people. I think the gift likely has ancient origins, dating from when we were a nomadic people living off the land. Unfortunately the gift, like all gifts, can be misused, (in which case it may be withdrawn), and there are also fraudsters who lack the gift but are gifted in selling snake-oil. During the time I was involved with selling herbs and spices I met some New Age types who managed to make the entire topic of herbs repellent and downright disgusting, because their poorly-hidden desires seemed to be all about orgasms and hallucinations. Just as I like poetry yet avoid poet-societies, I’m interested in herbs but generally avoid herbalists.

Because I lack the true gift, I tend to be more pedantic and scientific, and conduct secret experiments, involving only myself. For example, my son might visit, and notice a glass of greenish sludge by my coffee cup at my computer. Wrinkling his brow, he’ll ask me, “What the heck is that stuff, Dad?” A bit evasively I’ll reply, “boiled Burdock root.” A bit of a smile will cross his face, and he’ll be unable to resist asking, “And?”

There’s no way around it, and I have to confess the secret: While wandering the web and reading about Burdock root I chanced upon a claim it “stimulates the hair follicles of the scalp.” My old follicles could use some stimulation, in my humble opinion, so I decided to conduct an experiment, keeping it secret because I don’t want people to know I am vain. I told my son that so far I had noticed nothing, which is a good thing, because such experiments can backfire and cause immediate baldness. He chuckled and walked away shaking his head slightly.

I sat back and contemplated the blessing of burrs. Even if my thin, gray hair doesn’t start to explosively grow, (making me look like a large dandelion gone to silver seed), it seems the weeds of my life later are revealed to have actually been herbs, and the burrs that made me uncomfortable moved me to my benefit.

Life is far more complicated than our puny minds can grasp, even when we attempt to control it and to guarantee ourselves fat pensions. Repercussions cause repercussion’s repercussions, with events clicking like complicated shots in a game of billiards, with complications clicking onward even years later. When I talked with the mad Harvard poet X at age sixteen, who could foresee it would land me a job at age forty, or that the job would result in me teaching little children about Burdock root, at age sixty-six?

As I thought about it, it seemed those who fixate upon control miss a lot. They miss bonanza after bonanza after bonanza. It seemed better to be a Plugger, leaving control in the hands of the only Mind that sees all repercussions.

As for me, I just do what comes next, and what came next was to start writing something titled, “A Burr’s Blessing.”