Category Archives: Signature Stories

Why I’m Here*

I’m an old man but unwise. I’m old by most measures throughout human history but wisdom isn’t an inalienable attribute of age. I’m an old man with more questions, fewer answers, and less certainty than my youth.

I’ve grown old more by chance than design. There was no plan, no strategy, no goal. There was only Joseph Conrad’s wistful phrase: “To see! To see!—that is the craving of the sailor, as of the rest of blind humanity.”

I was drawn to the edge of things—the edge of society, the edge of relationships, the edge of the world. I’ve lived in the desert, in the mountains, on a remote shore. I’ve been so long at sea I could smell fresh water a hundred miles from shore. I’ve done what I pleased without knowing what I wanted.

I’m here because my parents believed the end of the world justified their faith. Our actions as a nation, a culture, a species have fulfilled that faith. We have remade the world in our own image and now the mirrored reflection terrifies us. My face is also reflected and terrifying.

 

SillySeal_EN-US1199693670I’m here because I need the self-discipline necessary to look deeply into that reflection and speak the truth, as much as I can manage, without hope of salvation or forgiveness or even reprieve, to speak against the madness without hope of eliciting sanity.

But mostly I’m here because of heartache for the loss of beauty, the exquisite delicacy and detail that is being gutted as humanity collapses into madness and despair, burning the world down around us. I’m here because of the heartache of unrealized potential and promises never met and sanctity scarified for greed by men who should have known better, been better. I’m here because there seems no wisdom in our wise men, no remembrance from our elders, no reminder of our identity, our inmost selves and our rooted obligations.

I don’t know if the madness can be stayed, if the world can be saved from ourselves. It doesn’t matter whether I succeed or fail or even how the difference is measured. What matters is that I speak with all the strength and honesty in me and when that’s exhausted, find more. What matters is that my voice be among those raised in defense of the beauty and diversity we’re wasting indiscriminately. What matters is that my heart grow stronger even while it’s broken.

That’s why I’m here.

*Written as the introductory assignment: Taft, Cynthia. 21W.730-3 Writing and the Environment, Spring 2005. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare), http://ocw.mit.edu (Accessed 31 Dec, 2012). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

 

 

Sound of Silence

I was 19 years old when the city fell silent. I had lived my entire life amid the sound of traffic—tires whining on dry pavement, engines accelerating from a dead start, brake pads grinding metal on metal, trucks rattling over potholes and expansion joints, and rarely someone pushed beyond endurance to use their horn. In LA in the ‘60s, flipping off the guy in the next car was less aggressive than using your horn.

SoCal_Freeway 

The freeway interchange that collapsed in the San Fernando Earthquake. Photo attribute: MyDifferentDrum on flickr.

LA might have been called the city of angels. In reality it was the city of engines. Their sound insinuated my dreams. The ground trembled slightly beneath their weight. The sky thickened with their exhaust. I had grown up living in the continuous presence of automobiles, every hour, every day. It was a presence as familiar as my heartbeat, and equally ignored, until it stopped.

It was 1971…muscle cars thundered down Van Nuys Boulevard and Bob’s Big Boy was fined for making hamburgers from horse meat.

I didn’t live in LA proper but the Valley, the San Fernando Valley, where adolescent girls spoke an English dialect called Val Speak. Every sentence began with “OhMyGod!,” three words hurried into a single breathless rush. The greatest good was called “tubular” after the shape of a wave hollowed by an offshore breeze. Frank Zappa made fun of us. He could afford to. He came from Lancaster, a fly blown town on the edge of the desert where the wind herded tumble weeds down the main street. I came from Van Nuys where we didn’t lock our front doors at night and no one spoke Spanish. We were living in a surreal dream of unremittingly white security. Later I realized that the dream ended precisely at 6:00 am on February 9.

Armageddon & LA

It was 1971, the era when gas was still $0.21 a gallon, muscle cars thundered down Van Nuys Boulevard, and Bob’s Big Boy was fined for making hamburgers from horse meat. At 6:00 am I was still in bed, a college boy living at home, when the earth moved. More than moved, it began lurching like a drunken sailor. The house creaked and groaned and popped arthritically. The light fixture suspended above my bed, a glass globe hung several feet from the wall, began to swing, gathering momentum. There was a basso profundo rumble from somewhere far away like the earth clearing its throat of phlegm. I was tossed side to side in my bed. It seemed like the bed accelerated rapidly in one direction but only a few inches before it stopped abruptly and began accelerating in the opposite direction. I felt like a rope toy in the jaws of a big dog. I spread my arms to keep from being thrown to the floor. The glass globe was describing wide circles above my bed. Inside the house I could hear crockery falling. I thought of getting out of bed and leaping through the window but I was utterly naked. Finding something in my closet to wear while the earth was doing a demented hornpipe seemed too challenging. A conversation with the neighbors start naked was even less attractive. The glass globe was thrown violently against the wall and shattered, showering my bed with shards of glass.

The earthquake lasted only 60 seconds. Afterwards 65 people were dead, $505 million dollars of property was damaged, and glass littered my bedroom floor. But it wasn’t the earthquake itself that was most remarkable.

The earthquake not only collapsed hospitals and bridges, it weakened an earthen dam that withheld 10,000 acre feet of water poised like the apocalypse above the San Fernando Valley. If the Van Norman Dam failed that water would seek the lowest point—the Sepulveda Catch Basin. We lived directly in front of the Catch Basin.

My choice was mandatory attendance at the Burbank Foursquare Church where they spoke in tongues or a horrible death in a Biblical flood.

Predictably, they evacuated the Valley: 80,000 people along a six-mile swath of potential destruction. My family left to stay with my paternal grandparents in Burbank. Given the choice of mandatory attendance at the Burbank Foursquare Church where they spoke in tongues and threatened to roll in the aisles or dying horribly and alone in a Biblical flood, I chose to continue classes, sneak past the police roadblocks, and return home each night.

We lived within sight—and sound—of the San Diego Freeway. It wasn’t the most desirable location but my parents had bought commercial real estate, a set of four single family, low income rentals, and lived in one while managing the rest. Real estate was their means of financing an interest in boats they couldn’t otherwise afford. I grew up remodeling houses and living near the freeway.

When the authorities evacuated the flood plain they also closed the San Diego Freeway. Police cordoned the area with roadblocks. The city was dark, without electricity. Police cars on patrol continually broadcast a warning that looters would be shot on site. It was the only sound in a city of empty streets.

An Architecture of Sound

Before then I hadn’t realized how a city is an architecture of sound as much as concrete, bricks and mortar. Sound creates a topography that can be felt if not seen. During the bustle of daylight it burgeons, growing large and complex like some gothic architecture of crooked alleys and spiked towers. At night it contracts into subtlety and murmurs and isolated alarms. But it’s never silent. Even in the dead hours of the night there is a background of sound like an archetypal cat purring. It colors and shapes the cityscape.

In the silence that descended after the earthquake the city collapsed. The horizon contracted. Sound drained away like water seeping into the dry soil, utterly absorbed. Only a dry husk remained.

I’ve experienced one other similar profound silence, in the days after September 11, 2001 when the sky was empty and no plane flew overhead, none except military aircraft looking for an enemy.

Had the Van Norman damn failed, I later learned that a wall of water 10 feet tall would have swept across the valley floor studded with the shattered remnants of innumerable frame houses and the broken bodies of people too foolish to evacuate.

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A Eulogy Before Its Time

My dog is dying. Her hind legs have become unmanageable, unruly. She can no longer hold her water through the night. She pisses in places that offend her dignity. Her body has become more rebellious than her will to control it. Her life is accelerating relentlessly toward its ending.

To watch her suffer would be painful but to hasten her end, unbearable.

Our lives have been entangled for 16 years. Since we waited for her arrival in summer, in South Florida, in the heat and humidity, waited day after day until the temperature fell to a range safe for her to fly. Since she was a compact bundle of black hair and sharp white teeth streaking around the foredeck and occasionally falling off, falling into the foul water sluggishly ebbing and flooding through the canals of a sailors’ ghetto. Since she chewed my freshly varnished bright work and I chased her around the deck, threatening to pitch her overboard intentionally this time, stubbing my toe on a cleat, adding injury to insult. Our lives have been entangled for a lifetime, her lifetime, a lifetime almost run.

Together we have seen life threatening disease, injury and loss. As well, joy and comfort. Her passing will be a deep wound but I beg a non-existent God that it will be swift, and soon. To watch her suffer would be painful, like drawing a shard of broken glass across my skin, but to hasten her death would be unbearable.

My mind is a simple thing and easily fooled. It can’t tell the difference between something thought and something lived. My dog is still alive but thinking about her death is like living it. The sorrow, the sense of loss, the tears are the same.

Portuguese water dogs have a unique, escalating bark. The third stage is like an ice pick driven through your ear drum.

She’s a Portuguese water dog, a breed we thought appropriate to live onboard a boat although she doesn’t deign to wet her head. Perhaps it was the number of times she fell overboard or the times I threw her overboard, hoping to cool her in the summer heat. South Florida in summer isn’t the place for a black, waterproof dog.

We lived onboard a boat in summer in South Florida, a boat with only one air conditioning unit, a swamp cooler squatting on the hatch over a cabin amidships—two berths stacked like cord wood—with Mizzen in a crate on the cabin sole. I had to sleep in the lower bunk with my hand resting on her crate to keep her quiet, to reassure her I was close throughout the night, or she’d bark. Her bark was like an ice pick driven through your ear drum.

We lived onboard a ketch and named her after a mast because it had fewer syllables than spinnaker and seemed less pretentious than top’sl. The meaning of the word is no longer commonly known, rather like the word grok. We might have named her Grok which has only one syllable but it suffered the same liabilities as top’sl and sounded too much like grout.

Water dogs have a unique, escalating bark. The first stage is deep and threatening, the second alarmed or excited, and the third is an ice pick that will shortly leave you deaf or insane. Water dogs can bark all day without remitting. The kennel attendants as Disney World can confirm. When we came to claim Mizzen at the end of the day, they seemed shell shocked and stuporous and suffering from survivor’s guilt.

I think she enjoyed watching him gasp like a fish on a dock. Retribution!

The deep, defensive bark she mostly reserved for mail carriers. For a time we lived in a house with a plate glass window beside a front door with a mail slot. Mizzen was left home weekdays to guard the house. Each day she watched the mail carrier approaching from a distance and then rattle the metal mail slot, trying to get it. We often found teeth marks on the first class mail scattered around the front room. There was bad blood between her and the Post Office.

I was once home on a weekday with Mizzen off leash in the front yard when the mail carrier’s rounds intersected with fate. Mizzen saw her first, across the street and down the block—her ancient enemy. She charged with unmistakable intent. I’m not sure she would have done harm, she’s never bitten anyone except in play, but the mail carrier was forearmed with pepper spray. I spent the next 30 minutes rinsing it from her eyes.

She made no distinction between FedEx and the USPO. I took her to work with me at Hall of Fame Marina. She slept curled at my feet when I worked at my desk, unconcerned with the public coming and going, except for FedEx deliveries. Then she materialized from behind the desk and delivered a single, deep, menacing bark that would retract the delivery man’s testicles like a snapped shade. She never approached him, never bared her teeth, and it was never more than a single bark. I think she actually enjoyed watching the FedEx guy gasp like a fish on a dock. Retribution!

She will not survive life.
No one does.

She has survived to the old age of 16 despite the odds. She’s survived a dreadful disease transmitted by the Lone Star Tick, vehicular hit and run, breast cancer and toe cancer and liver disease. She used to be terrified by the sound of smoke alarms but now she’s nearly deaf. And, of course, her hind legs have rebelled against central control. They slide from beneath her when standing on tile or hardwood until her belly meets the floor.

She will not survive life. No one does. I understand that intellectually but it doesn’t reach my heart. I’ll miss her most at 4:00 am when I wake and she’s not lying on the floor at my side of the bed.

25 things…

There is a craze currently consuming Facebook’s bandwidth called 25 random things about me. The idea is simple. You expose 25 bits of your life history without reference to importance or priority, 25 things that reveal who you are, what you’ve done, how you feel. You then post your list to 25 people you want to know better. Given the popularity of the exercise, I believe Facebook has now limited tagging to 10 people in a single note so really it’s 25 things to 10 people.

Anyway, as an exercise in giddy candor and with complete disregard for my dignity or future employment, I give you my 25 things.

1. An albatross once landed on my head. We were both half asleep at the time. Apparently I was the most likely looking roost within hundreds of miles of ocean. When the albatross realized its mistake, my ears were softly boxed by its 6 foot wingspan as it struggled to gain altitude. It was like being enfolded in the wings of an angle. Fortunately it didn’t poop on my head.

2. When I walk any distance I close my fingers over my thumb, forming a fist. It’s something I learned from Carlos Castaneda and he learned from his mentor, a Yaqui sorcerer named Juan Matus. It actually makes my stride feel more energetic but looks a little weird.

3. In my life I’ve broken arms, legs, wrists, ankles, ribs, fingers, nose, and furrowed my skull—the result of a consuming curiosity or a reckless disregard for reality. I still don’t know which.

4. I believe that, if there is a God, it doesn’t have a human shape, it doesn’t intervene in the lives of men, and it’s driven by one thing only—an insatiable curiosity. The function of God is to endlessly ask “What more?” and remember the answer.

5. When I was a child I was terrified by the film Darby O’Gill and the Little People. For days afterward the screams of the banshee haunted my dreams. Snow White was pretty scary, too. (You don’t think a witch living in a castle of thorns is scary?)

6. During the McGovern presidential campaign, now ancient political history, I registered with the Socialist Labor Party, just short of becoming a communist. After McGovern lost dismally, I no longer registered at all. I was no better at being a socialist than I was at being a democrat.

7. I have an FBI record, first because I was a clerk in a nuclear artillery battalion, secondly because I was discharged from the US Army as a conscientious objector, and finally because I was registered with the Socialist Labor Party. I’ve been something of a disappointment to the FBI.

8. In high school I dated the daughter of an FBI official, the man in charge of the hunt for Angela Davis. (Look her up in Wikipedia. Both John Lennon and the Rolling Stones wrote songs about her.) We never got along well, the father and me, especially when I refused to shave my beard. America, you gotta love it, or leave it.

9. I drove the water truck that filled the quicksand hole on a film with the working title of Black Bart. I had lunch at Slim Picken’s table. Mel Brooks yelled at me through his bull horn to get the damned truck out of the shot. The damned truck didn’t have baffles in the tank. The first hill I hit the water sloshed aft and the front wheels came off the ground. I could spin the steering wheel freely at 35 mph. The film was later renamed Blazing Saddles.

10. I was recruited into the Flag Land Bureau, the governing organization of Scientology, by Suzette Hubbard, the daughter of L. Ron Hubbard. She was a fetching red head. I didn’t last much longer as a Scientologist than a socialist and quietly slipped away in the dead of night. They may still be looking for me. I owe them money.

11. I have never killed a deer in my life but I once rode shotgun with a poacher driving a hefty four-wheel drive madly through the woods at night. My job was to hold the spotlight and keep a lookout for the cops. I could probably fill a list of 25 things with a “wild ride” theme.

12. At one point I owned both a ’49 Chevy Coupe de Luxe and a ’54 Ford pickup with a flathead six and 3-speed overdrive. Neither was restored; both had original equipment. Surprisingly, I wasn’t a collector. I used them for everyday transportation. The Ford didn’t go up hills well and the Chevy’s front wheels tended to ratchet side to side when I hit a pothole. Both were painted an alarming yellow.

13. I went to boot camp in San Diego when I was 14. I lied about my age to join the Sea Cadets. Actually, my father lied about my age. He thought a paramilitary organization would make a man of me. The Sea Cadets were a lot like the Navy but for adolescents. They taught me how to make a life preserver out of my pants, how to smoke unfiltered cigarettes, shirk duty, and swear like a sailor—all served me well in later life.

14. Earthquakes follow me. I survived the San Fernando Earthquake (Los Angles) in 1971, the Loma Prieta Earthquake (San Francisco) in 1989, and the Nisqually Earthquake (Seattle) in 2001. Where I walk the ground trembles.

15. I still haven’t written a novel.

16. I spent a summer living in a camp trailer in the Mohave Desert. There was no air conditioning. When the sun came up like thunder I had 10 minutes to wake up and get out before my blood began to boil and trickle from my ears.

17. I once attended the Renaissance Faire in Los Angeles dressed as a monk in the company of a pregnant nun and a bishop with staff and miter. We carried a goatskin full of wine. By the end of the day we were utterly in character and barely comprehensible.

18. I’ve never met the most influential people in my life. They were writers. All of them are now dead.

19. I believe we must all play the cards we’re dealt by life but some hands are better than others. It’s not the obvious things that determine the strength of your hand, not wealth and privilege, but the things that go unseen, the things that happen to children behind closed doors.

20. I suspect that humanity doesn’t have much time left. What survives will be hardly recognizable to us now but it may be a wiser, more respectful, less arrogant species. Or not.

21. I once lived briefly surrounded by a flock of sheep that were guarded by Basque shepherds and their fierce dogs. At night the coyotes gleaned the flock and barked on my doorstep.

22. I’ve learned you can survive any circumstance except the one you don’t and that one doesn’t much matter. I’ve lived a lot of places, some without money, friends, home, work or prospects and each time I’ve rebuilt my life, one step at a time. That’s a lesson I think a lot of people are going to learn soon.

23. The Doors and the Jefferson Airplane played gigs in my high school gym. Terry Gilliam is our most illustrious alumni.

24. I remember watching the original episodes of Saturday Night Live in a 100 year old house in Marysville, California. The house was built on stilts to accommodate the Yuba River historically flooding the town. You could ride a skate board from one side of the living room to the other without pushing. I was especially fond of John Belushi’s Samurai.

25. I once worked backstage on a college production of The Hobbit. The costumer—a big woman with a mischievous sense of humor and a history of prostitution—sewed a stuffed penis and a pair of balls onto my sleeping bag. She was a clever seamstress. The penis had veins and the balls sprouted hair. She hoped I would invite some woman camping and when I rolled out my bag, the penis would rise like a flag. The cost of thread, stuffing and cloth—a few cents. The look on my face—price
less.

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Retrospective

This promises to be a long, retrospective post. It was a requested by friends who’ve heard incoherent bits and pieces of my life but never a chronological retelling. If you stumbled upon it accidentally, my apology.

I was born in the shadow of the mushroom cloud. In grammar school we were taught to duck and cover beneath our desks at the first flash of light. They didn’t tell us the light would likely blind us. They didn’t tell us that school buildings would become shrapnel, that glass would become sand, that our shadows would be burned into the concrete. We were children after all, and impressionable.

I grew up in revolution. The country was at war with itself. Cities burned, soldiers fought civilians in the streets. Kennedy died. Hendrix died. Patty Hearst survived.

My parents were devoutly religious. They believed God was Republican and Nixon was his prophet. I believe that a vow of silence should be enforced on all clergy and that the president should be allowed unlimited power for a year, then ritually sacrificed on Public Television. But tastefully.

The Doors and Jefferson Airplane played gigs in my high school gym. I learned to surf at Malibu, Rincon, and Ventura County Line while we bombed Hai Phong. Puff the Magic Dragon transformed from an insipid song by Peter, Paul and Mary into a terrifying beast armed with three 7.62 mm Gatling guns, each capable of a sustained firing rate of 6,000 rounds per minute.

Watts blossomed into flame. From the San Fernando Valley we could see the burning city reflected in the clouds. Trees in the southern states were hung with strange fruit. Each evening the network news showed footage of soldiers’ coffins neatly lined on the tarmac. Each year the lines grew longer. The country choked on its own rage.

I left home abruptly at the age of 18 over a disagreement about the Tibetan Book of the Dead. I hitched north along the Pacific Coast Highway, dropped acid in the Big Sur woods, sheltered from a rain storm with hoboes, bought a rucksack in Haight Ashbury, saw a mob almost lynch a man at Wheeler’s Commune, spent all night talking existentialism—a subject I knew nothing about—in Eugene, Oregon. Laid up with in a cheap hotel in Auburn, I called my parents for the first time. I had been drafted. Conscripts were needed for the invasion of Cambodia. Good times.

Some accommodations were required both by the Army and myself. At first they thought I’d make a good infantryman and assigned me to a mortar crew. Perhaps they didn’t really think I would be good at it; they thought I’d be terrible everything else. Eventually I was settled in headquarters of the 4th Mechanized Division, 21st Artillery Battalion. There are relatively few people who can claim they were personally involved with the tactical delivery of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them. The warheads we deployed were bigger than those dropped on Hiroshima or Nagasaki. The fact that they were deployed on rockets launched from trucks caused us as much concern as the enemy. Twenty miles isn’t much distance between you and your own nuclear blast. My childhood strategy had been duck and cover. The strategy of the 21st Artillery Battalion was launch and run like hell.

It’s unlikely it would have come to that. The 4th Mechanized had only just been withdrawn from the Republic of South Viet Nam. The majority of the enlisted men and a substantial number of noncoms were high as Chinese kites.

The US military transport system was once the most efficient drug distribution system ever devised. Hash from Amsterdam, heroin from Afghanistan, marijuana from Thailand, mescaline, psilocybin, methadone. You could place special orders! It was pure capitalism, a jungle of supply and demand.

After 18 months, I was discharged as a conscientious objector.

Retiring to the desert to live like an anchorite was inevitable. Abusive father, abusive religion, abusive culture, chaos, revolution, death. The Mohave offered nothing more than needed—silence. I lived in the bunk house of an alfalfa farm. The Franklin stove wasn’t big enough to bank the embers through the long winter nights. The plumbing froze hard before dawn. I had to wait for the mid-morning thaw to flush the toilet.

I slept beneath patchwork quilts my dead grandmother made for the foreign missions of the Four Square church. The Four Square Church scared hell out of me when I was a kid. By comparison, Southern Baptists seemed pale and spiritless. In the middle of the preacher’s prayer, when every decent Christian should have their eyes closed and their mouth shut, members of the Four Square Church were likely to stand up and babble in some incomprehensible language. And just as suddenly, sit down again. Before the preacher could regain his tempo and finish his prayer, someone else would interrupt with an interpretation of the previous babble. If I had tried that stunt my mother would have whacked me upside the head with her unabridged edition of the King James Bible.

The foothills of the Sierra Nevada, Northern California, served as another primitive refuge. For several years I lived near the village of Browns Valley. There was a bar, a general store that also served as the post office, and a gas station without any gas. One of those years I lived in a single-wide trailer above the banks of Tennessee Creek. From a distance it looked remarkably like a DC-3 crashed on the hillside—broken back, silver paint peeling in leprous patches, door unhinged and gaping. There was no electricity, no running water, no toilet. There was nothing between my back door and the crest of the Sierra Nevada but range land. At night I read Castaneda and Céline by kerosene lantern. At day I cut wood and practiced calligraphy.

A spark from a trash fire behind my trailer ignited a 2,000 acre brushfire. Fixed-wing aircraft dropped borax as a fire retardant in a valley so narrow they banked to keep their wings from grazing the hillsides. When it was over, the government requested I repay the $200,000 spent putting out the fire. More exactly, insisted. There were men with guns and handcuffs. After awhile it was quietly forgotten. I did, however, move to town where I was less likely to be immolated.

The town was Yuba City, home of Juan Corona, first of the modern serial killers. Juan believed he lived among ghosts. He was not far wrong. The 23 shock treatments were supposed to have cured him. Other than the schizophrenia, violent temper, and homophobia, he was a model worker. His victims were white males, vagrants, drifters, alcoholics. All were stabbed and mutilated with a machete, two deep slashes to the back of the head in the shape of a cross, buried face up with their arms stretched above their heads, their shirts pulled over their faces. In several graves Corona had left incriminating evidence—receipts with his signature, bank deposit slips. He was convicted of 25 murders; there may have been more.

In 1983, Money magazine named Yuba City the worst place to live in the United States.

I stayed several years.

I was still drifting and the current carried me south to a beach in Baja Californ
ia near Rosarito. Rosarito had been the resort of Hollywood stars during Prohibition. They stayed in the Rosarito Beach Hotel and drank at Rene’s Bar—Orson Welles, Mickey Rooney, Ava Gardner, Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn. Rita Hayworth and her entourage sprawled across an entire floor when she vacationed with the son of the Aga Khan. When I was there the hotel was empty, the tiles chipped, the palm trees blighted.

I lived further south where the sweeping sand beach turned to stone, in a cinderblock shack without electricity, among a community of expatriates. The community was united by a single activity—heavy drinking. Gallon bottles of Oso Negro vodka were sold with a black plastic bear attached to a chain. Several of the expatriates had hung curtains of black plastic bears in their doorways. Other than drinking, there was nothing else to do but watch a sea lion corpse slowly decay.

When I repatriated to San Diego I had nothing but the clothes in my duffel bag. No money, no job, no prospects. I got a job driving a Yellow Cab. I slept in a wrecked taxi on the back lot until I earned enough to rent a room. I saved my money and moved to a better room. And then I found Scientology. More correctly, Scientology found me. They were marketing aggressively.

In retrospect, I suppose it was one of the strangest stories of my life. The fact that it doesn’t stand out that strongly says something about the rest of my life.

I still appreciate the convoluted irony of a clandestine movement, organized like a corporation, purporting to be a religion, founded by a science fiction writer, with a mythology from a space opera. From Scientology I learned that anyone can believe anything as long as they are surrounded by people who don’t doubt.

Scientology is one of the few “religions” with a rate card. It’s definitely cash and carry. If you can’t pay, there’s always sweat equity. I joined the San Diego Org as a staff member. I was recruited into the Sea Org by Suzette Hubbard, daughter of L. Ron Hubbard and a stunning red head.

The Sea Org was Scientology’s global governing body based in Clearwater, Florida. I boarded a Greyhound bus in San Diego and three days later arrived in Florida. I swear two of those days were spent crossing Texas in the summer heat with a newborn baby and a backed up toilet.

The Sea Org had bought the Jack Tar Hotel in Clearwater. Paying customers were assigned hotel rooms. I was assigned a bunk in what was once the men’s locker room. There was no air conditioning. The bunks were stacked three high. It was like a steerage berth on an emigrant ship. And then they sent me to Washington, DC. I was a man on a mission.

Lord knows why they thought me competent for a mission to the nation’s capital. Maybe competence didn’t matter much. It was August in the Kalorama District. Beautiful houses, many of them foreign embassies, but dreadful humidity. And then the Justice Department indicted Mary Sue Hubbard, wife of the Commodore, on charges of conspiracy, theft of government property, aiding and abetting, obstruction of justice, false declaration before a grand jury, and wiretapping. It was front page news. Seems she and 11 others had been busy breaking into IRS offices, stealing documents damaging to Scientology, and planting false evidence against their enemies. They tried to frame the mayor of Clearwater for hit and run.

I returned to Clearwater only long enough to gather a few things and slip away silently in the night. Mary Sue did hard time in Federal prison. The Commodore, the man who planned it all, let her take the fall. He never saw her again.

Several uneventful years living in Hollywood followed. I lived between Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards and woke for the second time in my life with a stranger in the house. Then I became a sailor.

It was the first truly conscious career decision I had made in my life. I had been raised on boats, sail and power, but never considered it a career. Sailing satisfied my need for adventure, provided historic continuity, served as poetic metaphor, and defied convention. It was an elegant solution. I left LA, went walking alone for a few weeks in the high Sierra Nevada, then began walking the docks in San Francisco looking for a job.

For the next ten years my workplace was the deck of a boat, usually on the San Francisco Bay. I taught sailing, captained charter boats, delivered yachts between Hawaii, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle. I celebrated my 30th birthday somewhere off the coast of Oregon, delivering a boat between San Francisco and Seattle. In celebration the mate presented me with a wooden match burning in a muffin. When the Loma Prieta Earthquake rattled San Francisco and broke the Bay Bridge, I commuted between Alameda and the Marina District by inflatable. And I met my wife sailing on the Bay. She grabbed my ass when I was climbing the companion way ladder, captivating my attention. I proposed to her in a tent pitched beside the Sacramento River.

Linda was a programmer for Raychem, a multi-national corporation with headquarters in Menlo Park. She had been sent to London, Paris, and Germany on assignments. She had long since passed the point where programming retained any interest for her.

We were married on Clint Eastwood’s Mission Ranch overlooking the Carmel Valley and Monastery Beach. We celebrated that night at the Hog’s Breath Saloon and too many others to remember. Our wedding reception was a bonfire on the beach at Half Moon Bay. It was a warm October night, an anomaly in Northern California, with an orange moon sailing across an apocalyptic sky. We burnt a cord of wood that night, the flames so high they scorched the clouds, and people danced in the sand like wiccans.

We bought a boat in South Florida, a 46’ ketch built in France, with the intention of sailing to the Caribbean with friends. Our mistake was renaming the boat. From that moment we were cursed. We sailed Elusive to Ocean City, Maryland, for a summer job running the Sea Rocket. It was Linda’s first long passage. When we entered the channel at Ocean City, we weren’t speaking to each other.

We spent the summer anchored in the bay at Ocean City. The current regularly swept the anchorage at six knots—the anchor line left a rooster tail—but none of the docks had enough water to float our seven foot draft. We were like a goat staked out in tiger country. Late in the summer the tiger arrived: Hurricane Bob. It’s hard to associate something named Bob with the savagery of a hurricane. Bob’s your uncle or the used car salesman who lives down the block. When the hurricane arrived, we were alone in the anchorage with nowhere to go, no place deep enough to float our seven foot draft. Linda, me and a toy poodle named Maui rode out the hurricane onboard.

Turns out we were the only boat in local memory to have spent an entire summer in that awful anchorage.

Replacing the engine in Annapolis delayed our return south until November. Ice fog formed inside the cabin. Anchored in the Solomons on the Chesapeake Bay, returning from the chandlery with hydraulic fluid for the steering system, we ran the inflatable out of gas in a snow storm. In Beaufort, just south of Cape Hatteras, we wrapped a loose chain from the bottom around our prop shaft and began taking on water. We left the boat in a Beaufort yard and went south to Fort Lauderdale to find work for the winter.

Work came in the form of a private yacht named Calypso berthed near Palm Beach. She was owned by a man who made his money by inventing a screw used in aircraft manufacturer. Harvey Phipard was made famous in a book about inventors called Millions from the Mind. In reality he was a disagreeable old man who liked to take the helm and often crashed. Fortunately, he had the money to pay for repairs. When we weren’t in a boatyard we cruised South Florida and the Bahamas or north to Bar Harbor, Maine.

When we left Calypso we moved our boat to Fort Lauderdale and lived onboard while we tried to earn enough money to go cruising. (We never did.) I managed Sea Tow Fort Lauderdale, a marine towing and salvage company. Mostly we towed small boats. Occasionally we towed mega yachts on the New River. Linda sold puppies, very expensive puppies. We bought a Portuguese Water Dog and named her Mizzen.

There seemed little point in living onboard if we never went anywhere. Eventually we surrendered the dream, moved ashore, and sold the boat for a substantial loss to a man who intended to sail her to Israel. Perhaps the bad juju incurred by renaming her ended with our ownership.

Sea Tow was my last professional job as a sailor. I became the operations manager of Hall of Fame Marina which catered to mega yachts in excess of 100 feet, then communications manager for Bluewater Books and Charts. Bluewater was one of the largest retailers of nautical charts in the recreational marine industry. I built my first web site for them in 1995. It was my last job connected with the sea. I became intrigued with digital advertising and never looked back. Ten years later I was working for Microsoft.

The Round Years: 50

A signature story.

In retrospect, I should not have been surprised. It was a rain forest, after all, the only temperate rain forest in the contiguous U.S. You expect certain kinds of behavior from a rain forest, at least you should, but I was lured by bright sunlight on a glorious day in Forks, Washington. Only later did I come to realize that Forks and sunlight were oxymoronic.

“That, of course, was before Forks became a spaceport.”

The town of Forks lies on the edge of the Hoh Rainforest. It’s a town carved from primeval wilderness that has been undone by a small, spotted owl. Not much happens in Forks these days.

There’s a novel about a young girl who moved from Phoenix to Forks and fell in love with a vampire. It’s an oddly appropriate storyline for a town with empty, echoing streets and a liquor store that sells shotgun shells. (They seem to have identified a market opportunity in drunken hunters.)

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Maybe the only thing currently thriving in Forks.

That, of course, was before Forks became a space port. The Rubicon, an entry in the X-Prize competition, was launched from Forks, exploded spectacularly mid-air, and littered the Pacific Ocean with bits of mangled mannequin. The bits later washed up on the beach, puzzling tourists. Since its failure in sub-orbital tourism, Forks has again descended into an unquiet stupor.

Forks was roundly condemned as “a festering wound of a town” by Dave Gilmartin in his book The Absolutely Worst Places to Live in America. That seems harsh; Gilmartin’s attitude was likely soured by his subject matter. The research must have been tiresome.

We came to Forks initially to survey a plot of land for a campsite. The land on the Bogachiel River was owned by friends. Since their property was buried in thick forest several hundred yards from the access road, they guided us to the place the week before my 50th birthday.

“How do you explain to an insurance adjuster that your windshield was shattered by a dead fish?”

It was a glorious day. Sunlight glinted from the rivers. The air smelled of pine and cedar. When we pulled off the highway onto a dirt road, the car flushed a bald eagle. The eagle was in the middle of the road dismembering a salmon. It was a large salmon, almost too heavy for the eagle to lift. As it struggled to gain altitude, we were closing the distance between us at 30 miles per hour. I braked hard and the eagle swept overhead, its wings laboring, dragging the dead salmon through the air, barely clearing our windshield. (How do you explain to an insurance adjuster that your windshield was shattered by a dead fish?)

ISPbaldWithFish

We found an ideal campsite on a bend of the Bogachiel, a sand bar backed by towering trees. We scrambled over river stones, ate peanut butter sandwiches, got sunburned—a good day. As it turned out, not a typical day.

My wife, Linda, tends to pack for a camping trip as if it were an invasion. I agree entirely with her preparedness; it’s humping all that gear through the woods that’s my problem. It was already late in the day and the light was failing before we finished the dozen trips required to move our gear from car to campsite. And it was raining.

Apparently it had been raining since we left the week before. The Bogachiel had inundated our intended campsite—the pleasant sand bar at the bend in the river. Our alternative was a patch of sword ferns beneath Western red cedar dripping with moss. The cedar and Douglas-fir created a canopy that utterly blocked the sky.

By the time we had erected a tent large enough to accommodate a squad of soldiers with battle gear and crawled into our cots (camping with cots is part of preparedness), the dogs were sodden and shivering. Sharing a camp cot with a wet Portuguese Water Dog is an experience I no longer recommend.

“The romantic days of a man and his chainsaw are gone, replaced by a monstrous machine with an awkward name.”

Next day was similar, and the day after that, and the day after that… It rained. It rained hard or soft or sometimes like gossamer but it rained. And for several hours the next day military aircraft streaked across the sky. There were fast attack aircraft, bombers and cargo planes. It went on for hours. A military exercise, likely, but we had no radio, no cell phone coverage, no news of the world. It  was disquieting. And then they began dismembering the forest around us.

JohnDeere_FellerBuncher
The ominous Feller Buncher. 

The romantic days of a man and his chainsaw are gone, replaced by a monstrous machine with the awkward name of Feller Buncher. The machine began felling and bunching around 8:00 am next morning. The forest echoed with the sound of its circular saw and the crack of trees tossed callously aside by the man in an air-conditioned cab. Like the rain, it continued day after day after…

On the fourth day of a vacation intended to last a week, I broke. It happened after attempting to shower from a black bag suspended from a mossy branch. The blackness of the bag was intended to absorb the warmth of the sun. Unfortunately, there is precious little sunlight in a rain forest. Next day we broke camp and bought a trailer.

Signature stories are those we continue to tell throughout our lives, the stories that define our history and shape our future.

The Round Years: 40

A signature story.

The twelve cylinder Detroit Diesels rumbled like a muscle car as we approached the dock lined with 40 black balloons. The mate, who had commandeered the PA system, led a deckload of sodden passengers in a chorus of Happy Birthday. The song went rather well, I thought, considering the passengers had just been pelted with sea spray hard as bird shot and witnessed Assateague ponies copulating wildly.

(In all fairness, the ponies were wild and the passengers not above photographing and filming what came naturally.)

Some mothers covered their children’s eyes while others zoomed in with their camcorders.

I brought the Sea Rocket alongside the dock and the crew made fast, then discharged our deck load with practiced efficiency. The passengers filed off with wet clothes clinging to their bodies and tennis shoes squelching. They had gotten their money’s worth and, in some cases, more.

The Sea Rocket was billed as the world’s biggest speed boat. It was marketing hype, admittedly, but at 73 feet she was undeniably large. Except for a slightly raised platform where the helmsman stood, the deck was unobstructed from bow to stern and seated 135 passengers. We boarded those passengers at Gator’s dock in Ocean City, carried them across the bay to Assateague Island, then into the open Atlantic. That, at least, was the plan. Sometimes it didn’t go according to plan.

SeaRocket_1 
The Sea Rocket on a calm day.  Note the gratuitous rooster tail. Photo attribution: fstopcove.com

I once ran aground in the soft mud while jockeying for a better view of the ponies. We shifted the passengers like movable ballast, crowding them aft to lighten the bow until we could break free of the mud’s suction. The passengers thought it part of the show and gave a cheer when we were once again afloat.

The spray rose from her bow, hung motionless, then fell thundering on the foredeck. It fell relentlessly, torrentially, biblically.

And the ponies weren’t always amorous. Sometimes they didn’t even show. When they did perform, however, some mothers covered their children’s eyes while others zoomed in with their camcorders.

After Assateague Island, I turned the Rocket’s bow towards the inlet. The crew began shrugging into their foul weather gear and securing their sun glasses with lanyards like goggles. The passengers often thought it part of the show until I pushed the throttles forward and the trim tabs down.

On the windward leg the Rocket would often bury her bow in the swell, the spray would rise in a parabolic arc then drive into the passengers on the aft deck with the combined speed of the wind and the boat. On a brisk day that could approach 40 knots. Salt spray driven at that speed stings. People tucked their head between their legs in self-defense.

Throughout the windward leg passengers on the foredeck felt themselves  protected by special dispensation. The spray arced over their heads, leaving them untouched. They pointed and laughed as their fellow passengers on the aft deck squealed and writhed with each impact until we turned and headed back through the inlet.

The deep ocean waves began to build as they approached the inlet and felt the bottom shoaling beneath them. The Rocket surfed down the face of the waves. The spray rose from her bow, hung motionless, then fell thundering on the foredeck. It fell relentlessly, torrentially, biblically. By the time we returned to the dock decorated with black balloons and the mate singing Happy Birthday, everyone who had bought a ticket was thoroughly soaked.

It was the last trip of the day. The crew at Gator’s had a round of drinks waiting for us at the bar—Tequila shooters were popular at the time. It was my fortieth birthday. I don’t clearly remember the rest of the night. I think it had something to do with a Ferris wheel. At some point a reporter for the local paper photographed the crew of the Rocket. It’s the only photograph I have of us all together—suntanned, grinning, and drunk as sailors.

40thBirthday
The crew of the Rocket celebrating my 40th at a bar on Ocean City inlet (I’m the guy with a hat.)  Linda, my wife, is the one hoisting a beer. The grainy photo is from a local newspaper. Click for enlarged image.

Related posts: Riding the Rocket

Signature stories are those we continue to tell throughout our lives, the stories that define our history and shape our future.

The Round Years: 30

A signature story.

Dan Wallace lived in a sailor’s ghetto on the Oakland Estuary where the current turned in sluggish gyres like the Sargasso Sea, laden with flotsam and debris, oil slicks and algae blooms, light bulbs, McDonald’s wrappers, and spent condoms. At the bottom of the Estuary the berthing was cheap and Wallace was tight as any Scotsman.

There were certain liabilities associated with a cheap berth in the bottoms. Bums tended to squat on the tidelands and forage on the docks, rotted planks splintered underfoot, and a strong southwester pushing a plus tide could lift the docks higher than the short pilings that anchored them. Large rafts of docks with boats still attached were sometimes set adrift on the Estuary.

On the San Francisco Bay, there are micro-climates drawn as distinctly as a line in a school yard. Cross the line and the playground bully is likely to knock you ass over tea kettle.

Wallace was a BMW (Boat Maintenance Worker), a sanitized term coined by Latitude 38 to replace one more colorful but less printable. He was good at fixing boats which was how we met. I needed boats fixed. I was the maintenance manager for Club Nautique’s charter fleet. Since I’ve always been mechanically inept, Wallace was a valuable resource.

He also became a friend. His caustic sense of humor and fondness for rum were endearing. And we tended to dislike the same people, especially Fast Freddy, the owner of NorCal Yachts.

Wallace bought Freya, a wooden pinky* 30-something feet long, and moved onboard. As mentioned, Wallace was a frugal bastard and he never threw anything away. He still had report cards dating from grammar school. It was a challenge for him to stow all of his stuff in a small wooden boat with a narrow beam. The report cards ended up in the bilge.

 The fact that Freya’s maiden voyage was on my 30th birthday was coincidental but meaningful—Jung’s definition of synchronicity—but, 25 years later, I have yet to puzzle out the meaning.

The boat’s engine didn’t work so we sailed her from the slip, short-tacking out the Estuary until we reached open water and the East Bay. By the time we sailed beneath the Bay Bridge we had broached a bottle of Mt Gay rum and were feeling well-pleased with ourselves. Then the wind filled in.

If you’ve never sailed the San Francisco Bay, there are micro-climates drawn as distinctly as a line in a school yard. Cross the line and the playground bully is likely to knock you ass over tea kettle.

Turns out that when a wooden boat is left out of the water, it shrivels like an old lime forgotten in the refrigerator—or the manhood of a San Francisco sailor.

One of those lines is drawn between Yerba Buena Island and the San Francisco city front. In other words, the Bay Bridge. On one side of the bridge it’s warm and embracing, like drinking a mellow Chardonnay in a hot bath. On the other side it’s likely blowing great guns and small arms and cold enough to shrivel your manhood.

Neither Wallace nor I knew much about wooden boats. Turns out that when a wooden boat is left out of the water, it shrivels like an old lime forgotten in the refrigerator—or the manhood of a San Francisco sailor. It takes some time sitting in salt water before a boat rehydrates. Appropriately, the process is called pickling.

When the wind first struck Freya, the boat flinched like a wounded animal, the hull groaned, and the seams between the planks gaped. The hull was subject to conflicting forces. It was like a taffy pull. No doubt we would have been more concerned if we had been less drunk.

At the time we were preoccupied with keeping our feet and fighting the atrocious weather helm. Wallace had his sea boots braced against the cockpit coaming and the tiller beneath his chin trying to keep the boat from rounding to weather. I was handing sail like a washerwoman.

“I’m no expert but I think we’re sinking.”

When I finally did go below for another tumbler of rum, I could see daylight between seams on the weather side of the boat. Sea water was flowing down the inside of the hull to leeward. The cabin sole was awash. Wallace’s grammar school grades, parking tickets, love letters and restraining orders were surging back and forth on a rising tide. Even his sleeping bag was sodden.

“Yo, Wallace,” I shouted from below decks. “I’m no expert but I think we’re sinking.”

The pumps were able to keep up with the incoming water for a while until they clogged on paper pulp. Wallace’s history had become an amorphous mushy mass sloshing across the cabin sole and fouling the bilge pumps. He took it hard.

“Christ, man” I said unkindly. “Why are you crying like an old woman? I’m the one that’s 30 years old.”  

*According to The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea, a pinky is one of the oldest types of New England fishing and trading vessels. Built with a Baltic hull form having a pointed stern similar to the bow over which a false stern was carried beyond the rudder like a square counter.

 
Example of a pinky with false stern carried beyond the rudder. Freya looked much like this but without the gaffs.

Signature stories are those we continue to tell throughout our lives, the stories that define our history and shape our future.

Lynching

A signature story.

When I first walked onto Wheeler’s Ranch in the late afternoon, I saw two buxom blonds feeding livestock near the barn. Their hair was tied in pony tails. They were each wearing a velour jumper and nothing else, not even sandals. For a Baptist boy from the suburbs of LA, this was the promise of the 60’s made flesh. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I wasn’t far wrong. Someone almost died that night.

I was hitching north along the Pacific Coast Highway, not going anywhere so much as leaving someplace behind. I spent a rain-soaked night sheltering in the burnt husks of redwoods in the Sur woods, bought a rucksack in Haight Ashbury, and crossed the Golden Gate in the back of an old pickup truck. The last ride left me on the roadside, miles from nowhere.

On the far side of the road was the relentless Pacific; on the near side, a sea of grass rolling in the wind. Sheep grazed behind rusted barbwire tacked to split-rail fence posts. A hawk circled overhead. A dirt road led up the ridge to Wheeler’s Ranch.

For all I knew such things were common at a commune. They might be sacrificing a goat.

At the time I knew nothing about communes except what I’d heard rumored by Republicans, all of it slanderous. Wheeler’s Ranch was the real thing—an Open Land community. Anyone was welcomed to live on the 300 acres; no one was refused. Bill Wheeler, the man who bought the land and freed it, was co-founder of the archetypal California commune, Morningstar.

Bill_Wheeler
Bill Wheeler at the ranch. Behind him, the studio.
Photo attribution:
Sara Davidson

By the time I had walked several miles to the ranch, it was late in the afternoon. Shadows had pooled in the ravines. I camped on the side of a hill with a fairly steep pitch. There was nothing flat within sight.

It was a dark night, a moonless night. There was no electricity on Wheeler’s ridge. It was remorselessly dark.

And it rained that night. The small tent I’d bought from the war surplus store in the Haight kept me snug. I was reluctant to leave the tent when I heard people shouting from the ridge top above. For all I knew such things were common at a commune. They might be sacrificing a goat. I heard the clanging of a bell, then saw fire reflected on the leaves of the surrounding trees, as if the trees themselves were on fire. I was sufficiently motivated.

On the ridge, the house that Wheeler had built himself was burning. It had become his studio when the county condemned it for code violations but it contained many of the commune’s musical instruments and art supplies. It was an amateurish, slack-jawed construction but it was the most substantial building they had and it was burning beyond control.

A bucket brigade had already formed and disbanded. The fire was too hot to approach. A crowd of a few dozen people in various degrees of undress stood and watched. The building burned maniacally.

At some point the crowd began connecting cause and effect; it became a mob. Someone remembered a speed freak with a penchant for fire. He had tried to burn the studio before, hadn’t he? The bastard!

A skinny, ragged guy was dragged in front of the mob and thrown on the dirt. He had the look of a deer caught in approaching headlights. Someone had already punched him a few times, encouraging his cooperation. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. The crowd closed around him, their faces illuminated by fire. They were in a vengeful mood.

"String him up," someone shouted. It was an archetypal line I’d heard in countless cheap Westerns. "String him up." The mob agreed.

They manhandled him under a big tree with branches stout enough to bear the weight of strange fruit. Someone went to get a rope. The speed freak lay curled like a fetus in the dirt trying to protect himself from occasional kicks.

It could have gone either way for him—his life literally hung in the balance—until Wheeler pushed his way to the front of the crowd. He looked like an Old Testament patriarch, his long hair and beard in disarray, his eyes bright with fire.

"No," he shouted and kept shouting until the crowd quieted enough to listen. It wasn’t a long speech but a lot of years have dimmed my memory. The gist was that he had formed the commune on the principle of land owned by no one and free to all. He wasn’t going to violate that principle for a burnt-out speed freak and a bunch of angry yahoos. They would cast the sinner out of the garden, "And if you ever come back," Wheeler promised, bending over the man lying in the dirt, looking in his face, "I’ll kill you myself."

So they hauled him down to the gate in the middle of the night and set him on the road to the coast that was strung with headlights like pearls. The locals had seen the fire on the ridge. Whatever they might think of hippies, fire was their common enemy. They had come to help. Too late.

In the morning I broke camp and moved on without a word, traveling north. Communal living was just too damned stressful.

Post script: Until I began writing this story and looked up Wheeler’s Ranch on the web, I had no idea it held such a prominent place in the history of communal living. It was a personal memory without a wider context, a single chaotic night on a windswept ridge. I wanted to confirm the few things I thought were facts but the disjointed history of the commune failed to mention the fire, much less the attempted lynching. I also remembered the commune farther north near the California border and the ramshackle studio as a Victorian farmhouse. So take this as a personal rather than social history. I believe the events happened as I remembered them but the details, maybe not so much.

Signature stories are those we continue to tell throughout our lives, the stories that define our history and shape our future.

Signature Stories

At the time I was too busy wielding a six foot flame and trying to avoid being stripped naked in front of two hundred Baptists to recognize the formative nature of the moment. Thirty years later, it’s become one of my signature stories at Microsoft.

I often seem to arrive at those formative moments by torturous paths. It was my burden to be born a Baptist in Southern California but it was my choice to accept the position of Skit Chairman for BYF (Baptist Youth Fellowship) in my senior year of high school. At the time it seemed a harmless choice; in retrospect, it led inevitably to that moment on stage wearing nothing but a pair of boxers and a look of chagrin.

We were supposed to promote the weekly BYF activity – in this case a luau, a properly sanitized luau, something you might see on Lawrence Welk. I had a loosely formed group of guys who helped. Typically we didn’t even begin working on a skit until Sunday afternoon, a few hours before the drop dead line. Desperation may not have improved our creativity but it certainly drove production.

I think the idea was first sparked by a Hawaiian war chant that my father played Sunday mornings to get us kids out of bed. (His alternative was whistling reveille at deafening volume.) Wonders volunteered to wear the grass skirt and coconut brassiere. I ended up with the torch.

2-luau

Rick Wonders was a big guy – north of six foot and 200 pounds. He could tuck a 60-pound surf board beneath his arm like a loaf of French bread. He had an irreverent sense of humor and no sense of discretion which made him perfect for the part of the Hawaiian maiden. I was less than 160 pounds with no sense at all which made me perfect for the part of torch-bearer.

We never questioned the wisdom of carrying a live flame onto a wooden stage. Apparently, neither did the adults.

The torch was a rag soaked in kerosene and stapled to a stick. Once the music started, the torch was lit and we leaped onto the stage. There was no dialog, no choreography, and little planning but the visual impact was stunning. We were such a success that we were invited to perform in front of the college kids.

This was a sophisticated audience – mature, refined, educated. The same shtick that worked for high school wouldn’t fly here. We needed to dial our presentation up a notch.

In retrospect, saturating the torch with more kerosene was probably not the best response nor ripping off Wonders’ coconut brassiere during the performance. (In my defense, it was an extemporaneous moment.)  Wonders retaliated by pulling off the plaid towel that was part of my authentic Hawaiian costume. I was left wearing only a pair of white boxers and a look of animal panic.

To this day the question haunts me:  Would a scraggly naked kid on stage be funny to an audience of Baptists?

My only defense was a flame that was now like a gas flare vomiting from an oil refinery. I thrust the torch at Wonders like a animal trainer trying to keep an unleashed tiger at bay. The flame traveled up the torch and engulfed my hand with each forward thrust. I was crucified between pain and humiliation. The Hawaiian war chant drove toward a climax. The audience sat transfixed, mouths gaping, pinned like butterflies to black velvet. The front row gasped as the fly of my boxers billowed open.

The performance ended when I exited stage left, screaming, trailing a plume of flame and smoke. We were not asked to repeat our performance.

Post Script: Afterward there was a private moment when I stood in the courtyard, the discarded torch burning on the flagstones, nursing my wounded hand. A gentle woman working in the kitchen next door came to my aid and treated my hand, crisp as the skin of a broiled chicken, with butter. I am forever grateful that she didn’t ask me why I was dressed only in underwear.

 

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