Category Archives: Thinking About “Why?”

Thoughts on researching and writing about past.

Immortality in Cold, Dead, Places

SCARS

Do you hide them? Do you wear them like a badge of honor? Do you own them like a scarlet letter?

We all have them.

They are not all visible to the public.

They beg questions: when, where, how did they appear?

What or who do they bind us to?

They hurt when they’re fresh. They let you predict the weather.

They never let you forget.

Do you pick at them or own  them as if they were a messy pet who showed up on the stoop and you kept?

How often do you use the time machine that they fuel?

The old man spit, sucked another mouthful of the PBR, put his finger on a dead, white, gully on the underside of his left forearm, swallowed, and rasped, “Got this in ’59; hurt like hell.” He drifted into the whirlpool of his memory.

“Don’t remember why we started; maybe . . . maybe doesn’t matter anymore. The place burned down long time back. They never rebuilt it. Pieces just keep fallin’ into the bay. A body can see more at low tide.”

Do you try to hide them?

How deep and old are they?

Do they mark regret, triumph, or just carelessness?

The girl stared at the ring, touched it, tried to unfurl it from her finger. Salt water rolled down her memory. “Is this what forever feels like?” This one is deep, old, but still pink and sharp.

Are they echoes in your psyche or shouts in your soul?

Do they speak to you in the scalding shadeless noon hour?

Do they whisper through the midnight wasteland of your dreams?

Are they your play-by-play record as you keep score?

There are six of them, like small reminders of a bout with a low calibre machine gun stitching a line across the man’s abdomen. They will endure until his last breath, an outward scoreboard for a losing match. The surgery they remember did not cure the illness. There will be deep, creeping, growing scars never seen by those in the room. They will force beautiful memories in someone’s forever.

 

 

 

 

 

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Living With The Last Honors Night

May 17, 2018

Jacob fought the angel, to what avail? To bring the frigid, nocturnal image of John Calvin down the ladder to block the channels leading to salvation? To siphon life’s joy into a distillation center where all is reduced to sin? Not even the medieval alchemists were able to achieve such a feat!

Senior Honors Night and the valedictorians hold forth giving meaning to their recent past and hoped for future. Thirty-six of these have marked an equal number of trips around the sun. How do the remembered battles (triumphs and defeats) etch themselves into our ever tattering souls? Do we become One-eyed Jacks in the deck of our time where our worst scars are never on display?

How much of the night do the one-eyed see?  Is their focus so narrow they can find the worm hole into a solitary eternal truth or reality? So are these Jacks as flawed as appearances argue? Perhaps, but perhaps they are the Messiah. Must the chosen ones be sacrificed on the cold shoals of Calvin’s dark coast merely because they sail against the wind and tide

Will this night be a remembered peace or join the flotsam of experiences generated by the typhoons of later life? The sadness and frustration of unrealized hope forming a hard scar never to be separated by storm or port? Pain never eased by time The Healer?

And so we reef the sails for the night.

Old Companion–Loyal Watcher

Threads string down from the left sleeve end of the thirty year old blue blazer sagging from the peg behind the office door. The hem is creeping out with age and wear. It has seen the pilgrimage of too many teenage searchers in the wilderness of prep school academics. How many exaggerated names have washed over the now dangling faux gold buttons during unremarkable services celebrating fleeting mini-glories founded on misinformed opinions from those who know better?

How many breathed and un-breathed howls and screeches of disappointed parents worked their way into the dark weave like so much smoke accumulating for three decades? Perhaps the pockets still echo with the cacophony of joy, pain, and boredom as competing valedictory addresses seek asylum from the curse of time. Yet, cycles serve the watched and watcher well. Persistence has its role.

The stained, picked, sagging blue played its role–perhaps better than the owner.

 

 

 

The Old Man’s Great Gift: Part I

He was in the hospital. Seems like he spent too much time there between malaria, tuberculosis, and the birth of his children. The doctor said he had phlebitis, and they had to strip a vein in his leg. Later I would learn about that pain — diagnosed with it at the ripe old age of sixteen. (I did not need the knife)

My Dad was a reader of stories. Mama had purchased a small pile of paperback books, ammunition for the hospital duration.  Somewhere during the phlebitis episode he handed me a small 1950s size paperback with an orange cover and the photograph of a hunter. He had finished the volume and was passing it on.

“You need to read this. You are going to think it is about hunting, but it is really a book of philosophy.” Uh, sure. Always wanted to read philosophy, but at least there was going to be hunting. A red-stocked, single-shot, Harrington & Richardson .410 shotgun was my first gun at age nine. It would be the only shotgun I ever owned until my grandfather died, and I got his a ragged .20 gauge double barrel he bought in a pawn shop.  If I had to gag down a little philosophy to be immersed in the hunt, I was all in.

Robert Ruark’s The Old Man and the Boy became the epigraphical touchstone of my adult life. Revisited as a college student; annotated; passed on to adult friends; re-received in a new edition from those friends so I did not have to lend the precious aging paperback with my Dad’s fingerprints on it; and the forge of a bond with a colleague who shared Ruark’s and my experiences hundreds of miles from my youth. (Thanks, Jack M.)

Now much out of favor with many because it is built around hunting (thus killing) wild animals, echoes the racist, gender-biased culture of the 1930’s American South, and does not resonate with the hyper-speed, i-phone, non-reflective experiential learning culture of 2018. The book adheres to the soul of those who still wonder at Orion in the winter sky, wait for the green sky of hurricane season, and feel the curve of a hand built wooden boat.  Ruark continues to speak to the pilgrims who know that the natural quiet of an estuary at dusk delivers a more profound sermon than the screeching brimstone hammered down from an American Express-driven mega church pulpit. To wit:

“As I remember the Old Man, he never said anything at all that you couldn’t walk away from three ways and still find a fresh idea in it. I got to where I could listen to him with only one ear, separating the meat from the philosophy, and it wasn’t until a lot of years later when I grew up to be a man that I found I remembered more philosophy than meat.” —-Robert Ruark, The Old Man and The Boy

 

 

 

The Ronin’s Tale: (Interlude) A Conversation

The lord’s minister entered the space and the occupant, a lone figure yellow with light; gray with mood; read without pages.

“You are “ronin”? He asked.

A nod.

Stiffly, “Your sword is required.”

“Does your master not have many sharp loyal blades? I am “ronin”, with no lord.

You are sought.”

“My question begs.”

“The need is specific. Loyalty alone will not suffice.”

“How did you find me? ”

“You are known, but not cast out, nor yet in a far land.”

“The task?”

“Small”

“The reward?”

Solemnly, “You will continue to roam.”

“Ah, condemned to the dungeon of freedom!”

“We are all condemned to one space or another.”

“The task has my blade. Your lord has my thanks.”

The yellow and the gray loitered.

 

 

 

 

 

“behold a pale horse”

He was a man of little wealth, but great taste, infinite jest, a mind and wit of Toledo steel, with a beautiful sense of the darkest irony; a master of the classical allusion. The sort of man whose tide of personality invited you to surf the big waves of life’s winter storms or sent you clamoring up the beach to remain a shy observer; erudite with a restless curiosity not uncommon to those who live on the crests of the storm tide. He lived in many forms, in many eras, but always as himself. He was my colleague, a chum, a friend. And yes, he had sympathy for the devil.

RIP: J.L.

THE CREEP

When you were a rock, at the cryogenic moment you sensed your immortality what could you know?

Did you see it coming? The growing reaching shadow. The smut-black shade. The narrowing lightless margin of your unchosen world.

Did you hear the growing silence created by the rushed voices phrasing an indecipherable new language as your space moved off-center?

Did you feel the creep in the room? The silent floating, then slinking, then lightly scratching, effortlessly encroaching inevitable behind your back approach.

Did you touch the stretching hardening inelastic distance from the then to the now?

Did the smell of loss find you unprepared? Malodorous, old-weight imposing unsurvivable  thickness to your air?

Did  the taste shock you? Bitter, uplifting, alien to your palette, non-lethal but final.

It always comes, bringing the second cryogenic moment and the reality that you are not a rock. That damned human thing!

The Last Plane Out of Casablanca: Father’s Day 2017

I gaze at the the last plane my father ever built. Lonely, hanging from the ceiling of my office, going nowhere, slowly yawing in the artificial wind of the HVAC vent. Small, bright translucent yellow and sky blue. So like my dad, though not obvious to the casual visitor.

My dad was large, 6’4″, perhaps another inch in his prime, lean, and thin but not skinny. He bore the weight of war and the joy of family with few complaints and an ambition trimmed to meet those demands. The plane is small; bright only in places necessary to make it seen after landing in unexpected places. Pale blue as in calm. Trim, efficient, stable in the uncertainty of air high above becalmed grass and gravel. Beautiful to those who understand how to see a man and a plane doing what they need to do without pretense. Floating on the thermals of time.

FROM VALLEY TO VALLEY

On July 1, 1944 the Battle of Saipan was finally  staggering to a conclusion. The Japanese would make a sacrificial gyokusai  assault on July 7 producing a stillborn offspring in the form of a beachfront graveyard midwifed by Seabees’ bulldozers. Some of the men in the Army’s 295 Joint Assault Signal Company had survived the unholy pilgrimage through Death Valley to  realize on July 8 that they had outlived the Japanese quest for martyrdom. Death Valley would become a nightmare that needed deportation to a small dark memory vault in the JASCO brothers’ being. I know; my father survived the Valley; he survived the gayoso. He survived but never outlived the pain.

The pain began on June 20 when the 295th, attached to the 106th Regiment of the 27th Infantry Division, waded ashore on Yellow Beach. Welcome to Hell. (It is a pretty place covered in white sand, Flame trees, bounded by turquoise water, and sweetened with the lie of a constant mountain breeze) On June 23 the 106th attacked the Valley. Death walked point. Grapefruit-sized rocks looked like cover– it was mostly emotional. Boys became men; became honored dead sleeping on a floor of slick burnt sugarcane; bought ground for the price of scars that never healed when they survived.

“That’s where we lost some of ours,” he said. Fifty years had passed when my father uttered those words and struggled against a rising tide of internally generated salt water that began to cloud his vision. I do not ever remember seeing my father cry as I grew up. He was not an unemotional man, but that form of expression was alien in our interaction. When he added, “it was the worst time of my life” I knew I had to go see this place. (I did) To study history is not the same as living it, but visiting the places and touching the objects in their place generates a vibration in the web of the past that is powerful in the present.

So now, at the first anniversary of his passing, I continue to search for my father the man and by extension myself. Death Valley increasingly seems to dominate the psychological landscape. Having never been in battle my experience is second, third, fourth-hand, distorted and shaded by others and time. Yet, some days the intrusion of my father’s reality  seems as sharp and unsettling as the volcanic rock in Death Valley– perhaps because it cannot be my reality. What was that reality?

Dirt, stench, violence, death, pain. Pain, cold deep scars that no one sees. Scars that produced nightmares six years after the fact. Seeing horror for the first time painted on a canvas already displaying a background that suggested Paradise. Shades of crimson, olive, umber, and black generating images of vigorous action magnetically drawing the eye to the center of the canvas inevitably dominated by the definitive absence of life. Guernica come to life! What was a twenty-year old to make of this? Who was the artist? The Devil? Where was God in this artistic exercise? As my Dad said, “Not a pretty sight.” (Would I had his gift for understatement)

Having survived that initial exercise in “experiential art”, body covered in dirt and filth,he washed his hands in a mud hole, the first time any part of his body had been washed in six weeks. What was he really trying to get clean? What had bathed his soul in the Valley? Did he sense that he would never be clean again? He abandoned his clothes for new ones, but when did he realize he could never wash away or abandon Death Valley? Did the final Valley of Death become real for the first time at the flowering age of twenty?

He survived Death Valley and Saipan; moved on to other venues where the canvas changed, but the final picture was always the same. What and how much of it died inside him with each new landing? How many unseen scars altered the landscape of his being? Did mere survival come to define the meaning of life?

February 1946 he returned to his beloved Gulf Coast and walked from the bus station to    “P” Street where he had spent most of his life. His mother and his African-American neighbor were ecstatic that he returned with no visible scars. His father had survived the Battle of the Marne in the Great War, and now he had survived Death Valley in another great war. They both walked most of their lives knowing in ways I cannot that we all live in the Valley of the Shadow.

On July 1, 2015 my father passed into the valley we must all travel. The young enlisted woman knelt before my mother, presented the flag, recited the ritual on behalf of a grateful nation; they played taps. My father taught me not to fear walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

 

 

CASABLANCA 2014: RICK’S PLACE

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When does the last plane for Lisbon take off? The background mutter of the Lost waiting for exit is sisyphian. No white house, but white minions hovering. Sam tickles a low hum-hiss tune with no melody–lower key from an apiary. No one will buy his piano at auction–you can get this noise from any HVAC unit.

Rick watches.

Table number 1 for the Hero’s party.  The geography does not matter; the Germans (actually it was the Japanese) are gone. Drinks arrive–plastic bags with long twisting straws. No color, salty taste that doesn’t kill the Hero’s real pain. Your cash is good at the bar. Nothing is ever on the house. Casablanca is a gold mine.

Rick watches.

Ferrari sweeps in, a bombast of certainty. Draws and gulches gullied in his face.  Opinions for sale; remember last week, or was it earlier today? Our conversation is self-generated. It is nonsense; it is all we have.

Rick watches.

Uncertainty is the fog. The parrots are green not blue. They hover and flit with the metronomic regularity absent from the flight schedule to Lisbon. Ilsa waits too. Can there be two exit visas? Most certainly, but not with the same date. Will she take the plane if the Hero is on it? Everyone arrived with letters of transit—Ugarte is already gone.

Rick watches.

Inside the Hero’s compressed world the desert of time and an unseen sab0teur have destroyed the travel schedules. This morning you are the valued Carl; at midnight the breakout was on and you were the mirage-guard in need of a thrashing. Now you are No One in his desert. Ilsa is his only constant. Oasis that is evaporating as her shores erode under the weight of the waiting.

Rick watches.

Watching the old man wait, and wait, and wait, and wait, and wait. Louis brings the news. No plane to Lisbon! Casablanca is terminal, but not this week.

Rick watches, but not in Casablanca.