Wednesday, December 20, 2006
The note inside read, “Rosemary for remembrance”. Their thoughtful gesture and the lovely miniature tree brought appreciative tears. How I wish they were in the room to embrace and thank personally.
Saturday morning, Susan and I headed to the local UPS distribution center to pick up a package that needed an adult signature before delivery. Thinking that perhaps a friend sent us a bottle of nice wine or other adult beverage as a Christmas gift, I was surprised when a smallish box was handed to me. Looking at the return address, my cheerful manner changed as I held the package even tighter.
While inside, Susan asked me who it was from, to which I silently waved her off. Once we were near the car, I told her, “It’s Heidi.”
Her cremated remains had arrived sooner than we expected and it is not surprising that after I opened the package to reveal a small redwood box that we cried once again. Unlocking the box was done after much fumbling with the small lock and I let out a soft, “oh!” when I saw the tiny plastic bag of gritty, white sand bearing her name written in black Sharpie.
“Honey…that’s not Heidi,” Susan reminded me. And though I knew it to be so true, I also had to pick up the packet, turn it over in my hand and feel the desiccated bone fragments crunch beneath my finger and thumb, just to find out if there was any recognizable sense of Heidi within the bag. Of course, there was none. It is merely a 4 ounce packet of desiccated bone fragments.
Yep, she’s really gone ladies and germs. Heidi has left the building. I really knew it, but apparently, I had to see, hear and smell with my own instruments, thank you.
Each morning for the last week, I have tip-toed past the area where her bed used to be so as to not disturb her. Before leaving for work, I think of making sure she is fed and watered. When I talk to Susan, I have to consciously stop myself from asking, “How’s fuzzy britches?” Coming home, I've found myself listening for the tinkle of her collar and upon hearing similar sounds, look to see where she is. Being mindful of this little dog became a part of my everyday existence. Heidi was a part of our identity, a bit of what each of us were. And now a portion of that is gone.
As we continued to drive, completing various chores, we spent the day sharing short memories of Heidi, how she came to be in our lives, (saved from Doggie Death Row - "DEAD DOG WALKIN'!") the times she made us laugh, (most every day) the times she pissed me off (I still hate stepping on dog poo in the middle of a rug - imagine that) and how she truly seemed to give more than what we gave to her (exquistely timed paws and heads rested on your lap - dog ESP, I swear). I thought of her final hours and her innocent suffering before the end came to her in the form of a peaceful, but very potent sedative. While we may have smiled and laughed more than once during our talks that day, the overall mood was one of melancholy and missing a loved one.
On Sunday, I found a bright spot in the family room for the bonsai and small box. They both rest on a shelf together near where Heidi would sun herself and rest her weary joints during the daylight hours. In a few weeks, I want to take her dusty remains and scatter them at a few significant places that hold meaning for us and that little dog.
I know I will save a little for the garden in back and I know I will scatter some to the wind as I thank her for being such a good dog, for loving us so easily and teaching us things such as being truly happy to see one another after even a short absence, that begging for treats or belly rubs works if you can do a trick and look up with soulful eyes, barking and growling only in dreams is an acceptable way to interact with the world, sleeping in the sun is an honest endeavor, a gray muzzle is not only noble but inevitable so just deal with it and waiting for a well seasoned piece of roast chicken is often worth it.
I want to thank all of the friends and strangers who have offered so many kind words of sympathy and understanding. Each word was felt deeply and is appreciated beyond description. To Kelly Sue and Matt, again, thank you...and give Captain Applejack a big hug from both of us.
Good night, fuzzy britches.
Sunday, December 10, 2006
Heidi, The-Wonder-Dog is dying. She is in a great deal of pain, discomfort and confusion. Nothing we can do right now except make her as comfortable as possible and make it through the day and night to see how she does tomorrow.
It is very likely that we will take her to the vet to put her down, to ease her pain and let her go to wherever good dogs go.
Dammit, this is hard. I know, I know, everyone has had a good dog that dies at some point. But I really don't care. This is my dog and it is my pain that I feel.
Susan, of course is in as much pain or more. Heidi was her constant companion, and maybe even the child we never had. Susan and Heidi spent many days together when I was away, working in the Bay Area for almost 2 years. They bonded even more than Heidi and I did. I might have been the one who brought home the kill from McDonald's, but it was Susan who was sought out for comfort and succor.
Yeah, Heidi was our surrogate child and fuck you* if you think that's stupid or silly. If it seems that way to you, then stop reading and keep your comments to yourself...this post will mean nothing to you.
I've heard it said that a pain shared is halved. If that is true, then I cannot imagine what it would be like to carry this alone. For either of us.
It is amazing how these little creatures can sneak into your heart, create a warm space to reside and be part of your daily thoughts and important characters in fanciful dreams. It's amazing how they seem to rely on us for just about everything, when in reality we rely on them for so much.
I'll edit this later. Just thought I'd share for a bit. Maybe it helps.
ADDED 12/11/06: As the day progressed, Heidi's condition worsened. She was displaying signs of dementia, her back legs stopped functioning and she began to soil herself repeatedly. When she lay there and whimpered with each breath, there was no waiting until morning to handle it.
The phone call to a nearby 24-hour Urgent Vet Care was easy. The drive over there with the knowledge of what we must do and what outcome would result was not. Hard, wracking sobs mixed with rain-slicked roads made the trip a bit treacherous, but Heidi's soft moans kept me focused to get there as soon as possible.
The wonderful staff at the Vet hospital was immediately accommodating, understanding and kind. After a few brief forms were filled out and consolatory remarks expressed from everyone, Heidi's suffering was ended. It was peaceful and as graceful as these things can be.
The number of times that Susan and I cried, sobbed or just paused in grief-inspired reflection last night is lost to me. For the last month, both of us have wiped a tear after witnessing some other sign that her time was nearing the end. It seems that all we need to do is to recall her fuzzy face, sweet ways or observations such as that she never barked, except in her dreams, and the heart stabs return.
Certainly, most dogs are good dogs and have their own charming dog-ways. It's just that Heidi was our good dog and now she is gone. Our home will be a little less human with her not in it.
I'll add more in a bit. I need to thank this mongrel of extremely questionable parentage for doing so much for us. I should mention that whenever folks asked us what kind of dog she was, it was generally, "pure bred pound terrier" which seemed to satisfy just about everyone who asked. To be honest, there was no telling what various breeds were added to the soup to create Heidi. All I know is that it resulted in a very fine companion and sweet natured family member.
*Many years ago, we had a new neighbor that stated the obvious when she said something like, "Oooh, you don't have kids - so your dog is your surrogate child I guess - harrumph!" Standing in the street with her and another neighbor (Alison, who loved Heidi, too) I answered, "yeah...and your point is what?" Alison was so flustered that she merely said, very loud, "Gawd...what a bitch!"
The creepy new neighbor lady turned away suddenly and went back inside to suck on her wine bottle. Okay, that's not kind. I apologize. So maybe it was vodka, but I really think the old bat was drinking most of the day away. I'm a little sensitive when it comes to the child - pet comparisons. Geesh, I'm not a total nut, I know the difference between the two, for goodness sakes.
One you gotta send to college, the other gets rabies shots.
Monday, October 09, 2006
It quickly became apparent that to really do this, you needed a couple of things; (1) you needed to be away from family from Wednesday afternoon until Sunday matinee and (2) you needed talent. Since I had issues in both categories, I only did it for the aforementioned two years.
But it provided me with some incredible memories and experiences that I could not probably find in any other venue available to me. The grind and hustle was exciting for a young man still finding his position in the lifeline, but eventually I discovered I didn’t need so much the hugs of strangers. Now, an occasional kind word of unexpected, out-of-the-blue-approval and appreciation from folks whose name I will not learn goes a long way to supplement that which comes from persons from who I have memorized the freckles on their back. Memorizing the freckles of a son, daughter or spouse became more important than I ever thought possible.
But I digress. This is about magishing memories and an attempt to put them in some sort of order.
Magishing Memory #1:
It’s been said that “People love a mystery, enjoy a puzzle and like being fooled for fun.” Not necessarily. At a show for a DeMolay* formal dinner, a cocky young man who turned out to be the group’s President or Alpha Dog DeMolay or some other grand title, tried repeatedly to spoil my act.
When performing for a social group, it is not uncommon to use the group’s leader in the act, to provide him or her with some stage time. This is especially important if the effect being performed will make them shine. The reason for doing this is repeat bookings, good word of mouth and a higher potential for a unsolicited tip. If you can make an alpha dog look smart, strong or clever in front of any of the beta females, a folded twenty passed via a firm handshake is more likely to occur. In this instance however, the guy decided that he would attempt to turn the tables on the performer and in short, make the trick fail.
Without going into minutiae and giving away any magicain's secrets, I became aware about half-way through the routine that he had sabotaged the trick. This might be best compared to a standup comic facing a loud, rude, profane and potentially dangerous heckler.
After discovering his dirty work on stage, I momentarily paused as if in concentration and looked at his most satisfied smirk. A knowing glance passed between us as his look of “try to get out of this one, magic man” came into focus. I nodded and silently accepted his challenge and decided to remove the gloves and strap on my magician's brass knuckles.
I carried on and quickly worked through the problem and successfully completed the routine to a rousing round of applause, laughter and amazed looks.
But I did so at his expense. Before the routine arrived at its no doubt amazing denouement, I made sure he was made the recipient of embarrassing comments (much to the delight of the audience, I might add) and silly moments that passed as comedy. Ultimately, he appeared the complete fool.
Today when I think about that show, I am more than a wee bit uncomfortable for what I did to that guy. We were about same age, but I showed an immaturity that is embarrassing now. In truth, I didn’t handle it so well and I know that I could have achieved a pleasant result for all in attendance without resorting to magical fisticuffs.
Yeah, I won the contest but victory was not so pure, not so appealing. I suppose I learned more about me than what I was trying to "teach" to the young man that night. It just took about 20 years for me to figure that out. I wish I could apologize to the young man.
In the canon of Magishing Memories, it’s not a pleasant one. But it’s one that I dredge up now and again. Even now as I I consider it, I think it’s a pretty good memory to have.
*DeMolay is the official youth group for the Order of the Masons. The Order of DeMolay takes its name from Jacques DeMolay, who gave his life rather than betray his friends. Sounds like a prison gang to me, but what do I know?
Friday, September 01, 2006
I am a fan of Project Runway.
I am a married, straight male and have gone as far as recording episodes if they would have been otherwise missed. At the earliest opportunity, generally the next evening after a new episode is recorded, dinner is eaten while watching.
I have been a fan of PR since the first episode from the first season. I did not tell my wife about this but she soon learned about this after walking in on me and asking, “What are you watching?”
I hushed her into silence until the commercial break came. Then the stammering and stuttering started. You would have thought I had just got busted watching kiddie porn. But once the words came out in order, the flood gates were opened. My gushing proved to be enough for her to join me and we were hooked. During and after each show, we talk about it and how good or bad the designs were that week.
The reasons are myriad for my fandom. The soap opera antics of the designers are amusing. The comments of Tim and the judges are often funny. Or bitchy, which can also be funny. The models are hot. The clothes and designs are often fascinating and engaging. It’s fun to out-guess the judges and honk at the bad outfits. But mostly, it’s watching talented, creative people engage in the whole process of, well...of creating. The challenges are met with varying degrees of success and I thoroughly love watching it all play out.
Of its kind, I don’t think there is a better made show. It is great TV. It’s a show that can be talked about because there is some substance to it all, or so it seems to me. There is something tangible that can be seen, touched and experienced. The outcome seems to matter a bit more because the winner (in fact even those lower on the list) is given additional opportunities to create even more interesting fashion designs with the promise of seed money to start their own line and/or job offers.
It also creates opportunities for viewers to discuss and decide what makes good fashion and see how the process works. In many ways, the show is somewhat like a true documentary rather than just a contest show. Unlike other “reality” shows where the competitions are based on being a lying shit head or merely stronger and luckier than your opponent, this show demands more. It’s great to watch a contest show where the truly talentless are "Auffed" and the smart, creative types rise to the top. The results seem more meaningful as a result.
Plus you get to watch young models get dressed.
Friday, August 25, 2006
I can’t say that it is the class offerings that makes it a special event. It is not uncommon to see the same instructors making a kind of circuit between similarly organized and mounted events. Art and Soul, Artfest, and the well remembered and loved Art Continuum retreats are just a sampling of the art workshop weekends that one can attend over the course of a year.
This may sound trite, but what makes it a special event are the people in attendance. Good natured folks (admittedly mostly women attending this thing) who are there to have a good time, learn a few things and eat too much.
Linda Young organizes AU to the last detail and the attention shows. The event runs smoothly and everyone is made to feel like the attention was undertaken just for them, personally. Complaints are minimal and generally the gripes are from folks who bring the grief upon themselves. They’d complain if they were buried in a solid gold coffin. 99.9% of the attendees and teachers are all smiles, regardless of the lack of sleep each receives during the course of their participation. Who can sleep when there are things to solder, shape, color, glue, stitch and transfer?
But complaints do occur now and again and though I have not received any about my classes, touch wood, I have been witness to some of it and have made the following observations:
The beefs are generally based on the fact that the student didn’t read the class description close enough to understand what the hell was going to happen in class. “But I thought I was going to make this and we ended up making that.” Well, folks…read the class description carefully. If you don’t understand the nomenclature, ask before assuming something.
"I don't get it...it doesn't look like yours..." (said with a whine, please)
The project is not working out as it should because the student doesn’t listen to instructions or pay attention. If the REST of the class heard it and got it, I think you need to look in a mirror to find where the weak link might be.
Your project will NOT be perfect nor will it look like the instructor’s sample. This is the first time you’ve made the thing; it should take practice and increased skill to make one that may be more apt to meet with your muse’s approval. You are making a model, a practice piece for future reference.
“It's not working…this is too hard…you’re going too fast…” (again, a nice whine accompanying each statement)
You can get it if you’d merely stop whining about your lack of understanding. It better be hard to do, otherwise everyone would be making one of these. You’d probably do better and move along a little faster if you just concentrated on learning the skill or construction or technique or whatever it is you are doing rather than share with the world your inability to do any of those things. You can catch up, don’t worry about it. The teacher and the rest of the class will NOT abandon you. Despite what each of us secretly wishes for, this is not "Survivor" so you will not be voted off the island.
"Her classes are too expensive...it costs too much to go...lower them so I can attend..."
You're correct, the classes are not cheap (but people, they ain't that expensive, either) because instructors are often not in it for purely altruistic motives. Some pay their mortgages through teaching classes and selling wares at the shows. However, teachers are NOT getting rich. Even those who have authored dozens of books often live very modestly. In fact, no one is getting rich doing this. Fortunately, most of the teachers and vendors I know do this because they enjoy meeting the people and are passionate about their art.
Certainly it’s not for the notoriety. It’s not that hard to get on the Carol Duvall show. If you can’t afford the class fees, don’t take the class. I know, it's not fair.
Remember, despite your deepest and most sincere beliefs, the world does not revolve around you. We instructors do care about you and want you to have a great time. We will help you in class as much as we can and provide as much one-on-one attention as we can afford without ignoring the other attendees. We want to give you good value for the money you paid but we don’t owe you our soul.
That covers most of the general complaints I’ve observed people make. I think it would be sad to be those people. Ya pays hard earned money, spend good daylight hours in a classroom all weekend and all you can do is to bitch because you didn’t finish the project? Do yourself and the other attendees a giant favor. Stay home. Or shut up. Or both.
All righty then, ahem, that being said…I had a wonderful time meeting some wonderful people over the course of a wonderful week. This is a retreat worth a three-peat.
Lisa R, Traci B (one and two), Juliana C, Lynne P, Richard S, Kelly K, Olivia R, Kathie S, Susan LK, Ginny, Michael DM, Chuck and all the rest - I have no complaints. We had a ball even though I ate too much and still need to catch up on my sleep.
See you all in a few. Can't wait.
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
Get (or watch) a dog; they can teach you faithfulness and how to enjoy the fun aspects of life.
Get (or watch) a cat; they can teach you subtlety and how to enjoy the pleasurable aspects of life.
Travel; learn everything you can about other cultures, ways of living and faraway places. You will soon learn that the farmer in a small village in India has the basic wants, needs and questions as you do.
Memorize a poem or two; that way you have to read a few before picking one out. Poetry may be difficult to understand sometimes, but it’s worth the effort.
Learn a skill outside of your chosen profession; there is a confidence in being able to say, “well, if this doesn’t work out I can always build houses again.”
Watch a play, at least once a year; the only thing better than reading a play is watching it performed live.
Go to a museum, any museum now and again.
Call old friends once in a while, but don’t bug them. They’ve got their own lives now, too.
Fall in love. Get your heart broken. Fall in love all over again.
Learn to cook. Learn to clean. Learn to sort laundry and iron your shirts.
Take a hike. Watch a sunset. Watch the sunrise. Do this alone and then with someone else.
Pay your bills on time. Buy on credit as little as possible.
Pick up your own trash and don’t litter.
Grow something in a garden.
Learn to write letters. Write them and send them. This is becoming a lost art.
Learn to draw or paint or sculpt of otherwise engage in some sort of arts or crafts.
Appreciate your parents. They’re humans too. Learn what you can while they are still here. Remember, life is short and while they may oft time infuriate you, walk in their shoes for a while. You could learn a great deal.
Start saving money now. Sock it away and leave it the hell alone.
Be generous with your money. Take care of your own needs and then help as many people as possible with what you have left.
Over-tip breakfast waitresses. They work harder and faster than any other mealtime but the meals cost less.
Stay active, but learn to relax. Balance is the key to this.
Do the right thing. Always.
Moderation in all things.
Too much of anything is not good for you. Life is a balancing act and success in life is finding that balance. A glass of wine with dinner, each day is not going to hurt you and in fact may be good for you. Three glasses of wine is probably over doing it. One cheeseburger a week won’t kill you. One a day will cut off your life a little sooner than you’d like. Too much exercise, too much fiber, too many vitamins, too much work, too much sleep, too much of anything probably means you’ve got a problem. Step back, examine the imbalance and adjust.
Moderation in all things, but have passions.
If there is something that you really enjoy, then forget all you have been told about being moderate. Immerse yourself in that thing with open and loud passion.
Shut up and listen.
You can’t learn anything by talking all the time. Listen to the experiences of the old and the guileless observations of the young. And if you are alone, quiet your mind and just listen to the wind. There are things to be learned there as well.
Be patient, kind and helpful…
…to the young, ill and aged. For at some point in your life you will be all three.
Smell a tree and remember it.
Appreciate nature and notice it whenever you can. Nature is not always pretty, but it is always true. Even if you don’t learn a single cosmic truth from nature, its just good for you to get outside once in a while. Watch at least one sunset a week. Learn the name of at least 5 birds and their songs. Press a flower in a phone book and then look at it. Look for animal tracks near streams. Remember the smell of trees and rain. A more intoxicating perfume has yet to be manufactured by anyone.
Walk when you can, drive when you must.
You see more cool stuff and it’s good for you. Don’t always park close to the front of the store. Just pick a place and park the car. Then walk. Take walks when ever possible. It’s one of the simple pleasures of life that we miss dearly if we couldn’t do it. If you don't want to walk or it really is too far, then ride. It's amazing what you miss when you drive. Smelling stuff for instance; the smells you encounter when riding is always a surprise.
What is success? Well, that depends on who and what we’re talking about. Plus, the definition varies from person to person. But I know there are some commonalties among all successful people. Successful people are happy of who they are and who surrounds them. They may not enjoy their job, but they enjoy some activity that may be funded by their job. Money is no gauge of success. I know of many miserable, rich people. They may be good at just one thing and lousy at everything else. Success comes from within and is determined by the individual’s standards and not by others. You’ll know when you become successful. Don’t worry if not another person on earth recognizes it.
You are not your car.
Way too many men equate their motor vehicles with “who they are.” For some reason this extends into their own sense of being men as well. Because of that, they will drive too fast, cut off other drivers and get mad on the highway when they can’t have their own way. It is amazing to me that someone could get shot because they passed someone on a road. A car is merely a way to get from one place to another. If you’ve got air conditioning, a comfortable seat and a good radio, the trip is more enjoyable. But the way a car looks, how new it might be or how fast it can travel has nothing to do with the person behind the wheel. A serial killer can buy a Mercedes and more than a few millionaires are known to drive old pickup trucks. You can’t buy status.
Don’t look at the label, look at the seams.
Designer labels are just a piece of cloth. Buying a shirt, pair of pants or shoes because someone has placed a designer label on them is a waste of money and they don’t pay you to do their advertising for them. You can’t buy status.
Make a fool of yourself.
Dance. Laugh. Be silly in front of dogs and babies. For goodness sake, don’t take yourself too seriously. If you do something stupid, laugh along with everyone else, but don’t make it a point to make fun of others. I am sure that if you look at your own actions, there is plenty to laugh at.
I don’t know why, but it is harder to be happy than it is to be sad. Smiling, just because you can, will make you feel better. Really, when you are feeling really crappy, try cracking a smile. After a short while your attitude and behavior will improve. Trust me, it works.
Don’t get married.
Unless you are really sure you want to do so. Staying married is the second hardest thing a person can do. If you find someone who you love in spite of his or her idiotic, sloppy and mindless ways then by all means marry that person as soon as you can. Chances are, they may love you in spite of your idiotic, sloppy and mindless ways as well. A happy marriage is a rare and wonderful thing…and worth fighting for. But for God’s shake, choose wisely. Think to yourself, “Do I want to get old, really old and tired and bored and upset with this person for the rest of my life?” If the answer is yes, marry that person and don’t look back.
Don’t have children.
Unless you are absolutely, 100% and really sure. Having children is easy but raising them is the hardest thing a person will ever do in his or her life. There is no task more difficult. Anyone can make a baby, but it takes patience, skill, money, time and more love than you thought possibly existed in the universe to raise a child. There may be no greater joy than for a parent to see their children grow and find happiness. But if you decide not to have children, then don’t. There is no shame in choosing this path. By doing so, you may be able to help the others who are raising children by spending time and energy on which they may be running a bit low. There is great joy in becoming a favorite aunt, uncle or mentor to young people.
Treat women more equally
I suspect that because most men realize, deep inside that women are better than they are, they treat them as if they were not. Women should have the same opportunities and advantages as men in all areas of life. When they are denied these things we, as fellow human beings, lose a bit of dignity. Also, remember to give more than you expect to receive in all relationships, intimate or otherwise.
Listen to music
Music is a joy beyond words. Good music can transport you, create emotions and cause other internal changes that science cannot fully explain. It just happens. Turn off the TV and put on some music, any music.
Old music is better than new music
Good music is music that lasts. There's probably a good reason why some old music is still being played. New music may be fun, (and there is no harm in having fun), but classic and classical music works magic on the soul. It is not important that you understand the music, it is just important that you listen.
Buy a good stereo system
If you can’t go and listen to music being played live, invest in a good stereo system. Buy the system with your ears and not with your eyes. Flashing lights, fancy dials and so forth do nothing to enhance the sound.
Don’t watch TV
Reading is one of the great things about being a human. So far, no other species on the earth can read. Books, even relatively bad ones, allow you to shut out the rest of the world for a few moments. You can be alone with your thoughts and let your imagination soar with the words before you. The average book is better than most movies and is always better than even the best TV show. I could go on for three pages of why TV is the ruin of our modern culture, but let me summarize my feelings this way: It is better to sleep than to watch TV, unless you aren’t tired. You are better off doing just about anything else than sit in front of the television. When in doubt, pick up a magazine.
Watch TV By Appointment
If you must watch television, pick your programs, because there are a lot of really good shows on television. Make a conscious effort to choose those programs which you enjoy. Once the program is over, turn it off and do something else. I love TV but it can be an incredible time waster so make sure the time you waste is by choice and not by default.
Oh, I suppose I already said that. But it’s not a bad idea to mention it again.
Do the “right thing”.
When making a decision, ask yourself, “Is this the right thing to do?” If the answer is based on good moral values such as honesty, integrity, truthfulness, fairness and other virtues then you will be miles ahead of most of the world.
Seek approval of yourself.
If anyone must approve of what you do and who you are, it is yourself. If you do the “right things” in life, you will be able to look yourself in the mirror and approve at who you are looking.
Don’t seek the hugs of strangers.
The hugs of strangers do not last and don’t matter. Seek out the hugs, compassion and approval of those who count, such as family and real close friends. The applause of the crowd fades as soon as you go home. Some people may like you and some may not. You must try your best to not let the fact that some folks don’t care for your presence in their lives bother you.
Don’t sweat the small stuff.
And most of it is small stuff. Worry about the big issues that affect your life. If you sweat every minor detail about your life, you may miss your children’s first steps, a smile from your spouse or a good sunset …you know, important stuff.
Don’t worry about things in which you have no control. It is a waste of time and causes heart attacks, strokes and killer headaches. If you have no control over a situation, it does little good to worry about it. Concern is appropriate, because you may find a time, place and opportunity to act on an issue that has been previously beyond your control. But until then, you may as well worry about unchangeable things such as the sky is blue, the moon changes shape and politicians are corrupt.
Tell the truth.
Telling the truth is vital. Even if you have really screwed up or in a situation that you dislike greatly or forgotten to pick up milk on the way home, the truth is important. Be honorable and own up to the mistake. If you tell the truth, you won’t need to have a good memory to cover the lies. After getting caught in about three lies, no one will believe you ever again…they will always doubt you from that point on. There is only one situation in which the total truth may not be wise. If your wife asks you, “Honey, do I look fat in this dress?” always, always tell her that she looks fine. Kingdoms have fallen and men have lost their lives for being too truthful in this question.
Women are different.
Okay, let’s get one thing very clear. Women are different than men. They process information differently have different skill levels in many areas and are generally physically smaller than men. That is not to say they are inferior to men. In fact, I have a great deal of information and experience which has shown to me that they are better than men in most respects. They live longer and their plumbing is more efficient. Plus they are much better looking than men are, even in the morning before a shower.
The Basic Rules of Life
- Or -
“Trust Me On This One…”
Life is easy. You inhale. You exhale. Your heart beats for a while and then it doesn’t. If the doctors get to you in time, you live for a while longer. Life is a gift from God or the universe or whatever or whomever. It’s a mystery, but for most humans, living is easy.
Staying alive is a little tougher, but it’s not all that hard. Eat well and take vitamins if you don’t. Work out a little, just enough to keep your heart strong and your muscles flexible. Stay away from tobacco for the major portion of your years on the earth and drive safely. Look both ways before crossing the street. Don’t pet dogs that don’t know you. Don’t pick up snakes that make noise. Use sunscreen. People are living longer than any other time in human history and it may be that some people are living longer than they should. But the fact remains that with the medical advances made in the last century, normal life expectancy is nearing the one hundred-year mark.
Living a good life is not easy however. It is the third hardest thing you can do. The second hardest is staying married and the hardest is raising children…but we’ll talk about that later.
These “Rules of Life,” are my rules and perhaps no one else’s. Most of them have been revealed to me through one of three ways; 1) Observing other successful people and keeping good notes on what they do or don’t do, 2) Recognizing the obvious and 3) Making big mistakes and recognizing the error in my judgement. The third item is perhaps the most revealing in that the lesson(s) learned may have been obvious to others but were a mystery to me at the time.
The purpose in writing this is to maybe help you in deciding what rules you wish to adopt for yourself. Its been said that advice is worth what you paid for it. And that is generally true. If, however, you find some seed of truth in the following pages, then I’ve succeeded in this small endeavor. The most important thing to consider is that this advice (“words o’ wisdom,” fireside chat or whatever you wish to call this) is given with a great deal of love and caring.
Suffice to say I’ve made a fair share of errors in my life. I am trying to point out a few items that could serve as directional and/or caution signs as you travel along this much too short of a journey called “LIFE”. Imagine it as a crudely drawn road map with no specific highway numbers listed and only the “Road Closed,” “Curves Ahead” and “Bridge Out,” signs identified.
Before you begin, remember to wear your seat belt. Even if you followed all of the directions given, you will no doubt find yourself on some bumpy roads and down an occasional dark alley. But not to worry, it makes the journey more interesting in the retelling.
Thursday, July 06, 2006
The sound of "Taps" rushes back the sight of stars literally filling the night sky. Because the camp was so large in area, communication was done via the call of a bugle. Bruce, a chubby faced, Pillsbury doughboy of a lad, was our camp bugler and his talent belied his tender years. We were notified of meal times, assemblies, the raising and lowering of the flag, weekly fire drills and the like, to the strains of a brass horn made more beautiful with his expert skill. There is a bugle call for every significant happening at camp and it takes little time to recognize what each melody signified. My favorite call was "Tattoo" which is the traditional call for soldiers and sailors to return to their quarters, played fifteen minutes before the haunting rhythms of taps. It isn't heard very often, except in old Calvary movies. Believe it or not, I miss this comforting and lyricless song.
The feel and taste of ice cold mountain stream water recalls the fact that many of the water sources made available to us came untreated and sweeter than can be imagined. At the time we had little worries of contamination in the high creeks and wells. Once you've experienced the ultimate freshness of untouched, natural water, nothing else dare be labeled "water." Water today tastes of plastic or unspecified chemicals. Bottled Canadian glacier or imported French spring water cannot compare. It was a simple pleasure but one that was appreciated even then.
The sight of fog recalls a late night moonlit hike. My brother and I decided well after sundown that we would join a small group of scouts who had been taken for an overnight hike and campout far into the woods. As we climbed the trail to the distant outpost, we noticed that we did not require our flashlights to see our way over the rough terrain. The full moon reflected off of the light gray granite, and one could easily read a map in its glow. Half way up, the trail rounded a bit allowing us to view the small town of Idyllwild twinkling below us. We took in the entire scene with silent admiration then noticed a low fog bank creeping over the mountain pass just a few miles north of the slumbering hamlet. The blanket of fog soon covered the entire valley and their few streetlights now appeared as glowing halloed pearls. My brother and I turned to each other, smiled and climbed onward towards the moon. Years later I learned that he too had been touched deeply by the tableau that God seemed to have painted for our personal delight.
But most of all I remember that the summer of '69 was a special time in my life. No longer would I fail to understand the deep need for people to strive to make a better world. That the world was full of incredible pain and suffering and amazing joy is now fully grasped. What was most significant is that I realized this at the time.
My last day at camp was full of saying good-bye to my friends, the promise to get together for a hike or whatever and of arranging rides down the hill and once again to home. Some time during the day, I missed the car full of staffers with whom I was to travel and had to call my parents to pick me up. It was an hour and a half trip from my home and after a brief scolding they assured me they would be there soon.
As I waited in the main assembly hall I realized that the only persons left were myself and Mr. D. The forest was incredibly quiet, the noise of young boys laughing and shouting to each other gone for another year. I looked around inside the hall and gazed at the rolled up campaign hat hanging over the fireplace and smiled a small grin. Walking over to it I noticed the filth of dirt and sweat covering it. Turning to the large picture window that looked towards the large granite spires and the Jeffery Pines moving softly in the first chilling wind, and with it the promise of autumn.
I began to cry, for I knew I would never return to this place as a boy. The next time that I imagined that I would enjoy these mountains and this camp may be with my own son. Behind me, Mr. D walked over to me and placed an arm over my shoulder.
"What's the matter, son?" he asked.
"I'm going to miss this place." I answered.
"So will I. But it will always be here."
"It will. It will always be here and here," he said pointing to my head and chest, "so trust me, you will never forget this place and never forget this time."
He hugged me as I cried a little more. He then began to laugh as he pointed out a small ground squirrel that had stretched out on his stomach just beyond the window, unaware of our presence. The squirrel seemed to be breathing sighs of relief.
"It looks like he's glad were gone," he offered.
We both laughed at the small animal that had survived one more summer of over eager boys bent on disrupting the calm of the woods, yet taking with them a part of the wilderness experience.
Camp Emerson still conducts summer programs for boys of all ages. It still provides memories and stories for those who will listen and take note. The trees still have the scent of vanilla, the lake still offers late night canoe rides and a smelly old campaign hat still hangs over the fireplace.
I will never forget that wonderful place. Even the thief we call time cannot take away the summer of 1969. It slumbers in my heart and in my mind, awakened now and again by a familiar sound or smell.
I will never forget.
THE SCENT OF VANILLA - PART EIGHT
Some of the staff looked upon the fact that we had a cook to prepare all of the staff meals as either a curse or a blessing. The staff's cook was Frank Delgado. "Mr. D" was not too well known by myself, however, my brother was assigned as the commissary director and the cook's assistant. My brother, Jim, related that though his was a demanding boss, he was also given to an extremely odd sense of humor.
He would often walk into the kitchen while the dishes were being washed and announce, "No smoking in the kitchen!" all the time puffing furiously on a pipe, then suddenly walk out.
On occasion, to liven meal times up a little, he would walk into the dining room and tell everyone it was time for "the auction." He then would drag out an old Navy duffel bag and produce various used items, which we would then bid on. Using just about anything we could barter with, from candy bars to pine cones, the staff would engage in outbidding each other for old coffee pots, beat up frying pans, and army packs.
He would begin, "Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, (and if any females are in this room, I want to know about it), this coffee pot is unique in its class. You will notice that the inside is caked with so much coffee residue that one no longer needs to use coffee grounds to create the perfect cup of Joe. Just add boiling water and voila' you have a brew fit for a king." Continuing, "What am me bid for this personally embroidered army pack? This fashion accessory matches any color you may be wearing, as long as you are wearing olive drab and why just look here, please notice the initials on the flap, it reads U.S., that's right - "us"!
Mr. D also was a veteran of past wars, and though he rarely spoke of seeing action, it showed. He was a little man with a protruding stomach and a back that was bent and terribly humped. His entire body was covered with albino-like splotches. Jim told me that he had been seriously burned in the Second World War during which he served on a submarine in the South Pacific. Apparently, Mr. D's sub had been hit by enemy fire causing the survivors to seek refuge on the surface.
The surrounding waters were covered in a deep film of burning submarine fuel. During the course of his attempts to rescue his fellow submariners he received burns over most of his body. For several days they fought off shark attacks and exposure to the sun. Frank Delgado was decorated for his heroism and for the injuries he sustained in the war.
Later, in civilian life, Mr. D started and led a Boy Scout troop in the city of Watts. The troop was the first black scout troop in Los Angeles. A short documentary was made recalling his life and was broadcast in the early 1960's. Like so many of the adult leaders in the scouting movement, Frank Delgado gave unselfishly of his time in an attempt to build the character and to enhance the lives of young boys growing up in a confusing and dangerous world. Certainly, if one looks to people like him, a great deal can be harvested through his example.
THE SCENT OF VANILLA - PART SEVEN
In 1969, and I suppose certainly now, being a Boy Scout was very difficult for a youngster of junior or high school age. Membership in the organization was generally kept secret from non-scouting friends and certainly from the girls with whom you attend class. There are many reasons for this, the greatest of which has to do with the uniform.
The scouting program is based on providing certain experiences and guidelines to young boys. These experiences; such as hiking, camping, and other outdoor activities help to build a boy physically and create a sense of self reliance and esteem. The scouting tenants of responsibility, honesty and providing aid to others are designed to create a positive moral basis. This is at a time in a youngster's life when many other influences are at work which can be destructive and oft times dangerous. Today there are controversies regarding the sexual preferences and religious beliefs of scouts and scouters that were not issues of concern in 1969. But for myself, the program was one in which I personally believe had a very positive effect on my life.
However, and perhaps unfortunately, scouting has many military influences that in the eyes of some people detract from the success of the program. Scouts spent time engaging in patriotic ceremonies, marching in formation, saluting and attempting to achieve certain ranks or badges. This influence was most apparent when you examined the emphasis on the wearing of the uniform. The uniform was designed to make all of the boys equal in dress, create a certain sense of "belonging," and discipline. During the late 1960's and early 70's anything related to military practices or anything resembling the armed forces were considered by many, especially by young people, as reflecting a negative model for anyone to embrace.
Not surprisingly then, many of the adult volunteer and professional scout leaders, “scouters,” had military service records. Although I held that the then current military presence in Southeast Asia as being reprehensible and morally corrupt, I was still drawn to the stories that these adults would relate to my eager ears. There were two older men that worked at the camp who captured my imagination and in the case of one individual captured my respect.
Tom Hardweld had been the camp's rifle range instructor for many years prior to my arrival as a staff member. Tom, or known simply as "Hardweld," was about one hundred and thirty seven years old, smoked hand rolled cigarettes and cursed the foulest language recorded in history. His skin had the appearance of a bran muffin with extra raisins, his legs were spindly and bowlegged and his right eye was completely white with cataracts. He could always be seen wearing one of the old fashioned Boy Scout "Campaign Hats," which he had rolled in a manner that more resembled a cowboy hat than any officially approved head gear. Despite his near blind condition he could hit a bull's-eye from twenty miles. His skill with firearms was absolutely bewildering and often took on legendary proportions.
Hardweld was at once frightening in appearance, abrasive in attitude and short in temper. Here was a man who proclaimed that children would make quite adequate target practice but spent every free moment working with them.
During the summer of '69 a new rifle range shelter was being built and Hardweld was found many times walking on the roof rafters twelve feet off of the ground much to the worry of everyone. On several occasions I would walk up to the range to bring him a cool drink and listen to his colorful memories.
He had spent a great deal of time in the armed services and had rode horses in the now non-existent Calvary. "I remember chasing Pancho Villa up and down the Mexican Border for weeks on end. That son-of-a-bitching Mexican was as clever as a coyote," he laughingly said. "Never did catch that brown bastard. It was like trying to catch a mouse with boxing gloves!" he added. He would pause, look me right in the eyes with that one clouded eye, and laugh out loud, hack and light up another cigarette. I never knew if he was testing my resolve to stay and listen or telling an out and out lie. Whenever I looked at him I recalled Edgar Allen Poe's story, "The Tale-Tell Heart," and the protagonist's obsession with his victim's evil eye.
"Why there was one time on an Arizona Indian Reservation that I had to hand out food and blankets to the Navajos. Those people couldn't speak a single word of English and the women were as ugly as I have ever seen." Continuing, "I tell you boy, it looked like a goddamned bread line."
Though I listened and sometimes smiled, I rarely added anything to these talks. His obviously racist attitudes bothered me greatly. And though I sought him out I never really liked the man.
One morning, Hardweld was walking on the roof of the near completed range shelter putting on shingles and fell about thirteen feet, unable to move. We placed him on a stretcher; all the while he was cursing and writing in pain.
"I need a smoke. Somebody give me a cigarette, somebody give me a god damned cigarette," he demanded.
Finally someone produced a lit Winston and placed it in his mouth. The curious thing is that the only people at the scene were staff members, none of which were allowed to have tobacco. As we were carrying him down the hill to the waiting ambulance, we noticed that he had dropped his hat. I found it lying on the ground near the place he had fallen and put it on my head. As he was being transported to the hospital I hung the hat over the fireplace in the main assembly hall for safekeeping.
We learned that he had broken a leg and his hip. He never left the hospital. Hardweld died several months later.
His belligerent, cantankerous attitude and hateful behavior was unwanted and unnecessary. He was probably a man of his time but the old bastard lived a bit longer than he should have. Fortunately, his hate died with him.
THE SCENT OF VANILLA - PART SIX
It was during this summer that the first African-American staff member was hired. Kelvin was fourteen at the time and came from a very influential and somewhat wealthy family in Riverside. His father was a Doctor of Education working for the school district and his mother was an instructor at the local junior college. Kelvin became one of my friends at camp, but often kept to himself for reasons I did not understand at the time. Each week we would catch a ride together as our parents took turns hauling us up and down the mountain at the close of each weekly session. During the ninety minute trip we would speak of favorite music, TV shows, movies and books, compare hiking, school and girl stories. Kelvin went to a private boarding school which fascinated me.
Upon hearing that he spent most of the school year away from the watchful eyes of his parents, I began to envy his good fortune. He had his own dormitory room (complete with stereo and television - HEAVEN!), attended classes with the very best of teachers and participated in field trips to museums, historical monuments and other privileged events. How cool it must have been, I thought, to be able to come and go as you like, see the things he has seen and do the things he has done. But just underneath his stories I sensed a particular loneliness.
"My parents come up about once a quarter and we do things. They take me to dinner, we go shopping, maybe catch a movie. It's pretty neat," he said without a smile.
One weekend, his mother and father were going out of town and Kelvin was to spend the weekend alone at the camp. When my own mom heard this, she insisted that Kelvin spend the weekend with others. "Honey, you just come home with us. Make sure you grab your laundry and we'll take care of that as well."
I was a little surprised at this concern displayed by my mother, and pitied poor Kelvin that he would have to give up the chance to spend a couple of days of freedom at the insistence of a very stubborn woman. Kelvin seemed delighted at the prospect and was waiting in the car before I had even begun to find and pack all of the week's dirty underwear and tee shirts.
The weekend at home was very uneventful. Dad cooked greasy hamburgers on the grill, we rode bikes into a nearby orange grove, watched TV, teased my little sister, played fetch with my dog, threw dirt clods at the whiny, booger-eating neighbor kid, played with my slot car track, grabbed a Slurpee at the 7-11 store, looked at a dead cat on the road and read a couple of old "Doctor Solar" comic books. Your basic boring weekend.
On the way back to camp, Kelvin was more animated than I had ever seen. He wouldn't shut up. The entire hour and a half he talked about how great a cook my father was, how stupid the whiny neighbor kid proved to be, "He just stood there as we nailed him with that huge clod!" he roared and that he had won most of the slot car races.
As we unloaded our gear from the car, I gave my dad a hug and kissed my mother. They told us to be safe, call when we can and so forth. As I turned once more to wave good-bye, I saw Kelvin reach for my parents and gave both of them a long warm hug. Smiling, he turned away and later told me that he thought my mother was pretty and that my dad could tell a good joke. He then very quietly thanked me for the good times we had shared. Walking further from the cars he became quieter. Nothing more was said about the weekend.
It was late on Wednesday after the evening meal that the camp director made a very strange request. He asked each staff member to write and print the following words: "Keep Digging Son, A Bigger One Is Needed." Each person was given a felt tipped marker and instructed to sign their name at the bottom of the paper. All the slips were collected by the Camp Director who shut himself with two other adult staffers within an adjoining office. We were told to remain in the dining hall until called.
One by one, each boy was called for. No one could understand this strange exercise. It wasn't until an hour later that I was summoned. As I approached the office door, it suddenly struck me that Kelvin had not been present the entire meal.
The camp director, Marvin, and the other adults sat across from me at a long table. Marvin looked at me with a surprisingly stern look and asked me, "Why did you do it? We know you did and we have samples of your handwriting to prove it!"
Of course, I had no idea of what he was speaking and didn't know at first how to react. I smiled, thinking that this was some kind of bizarre joke or stupid Boy Scout test of which I had not been informed. When my smile was not returned I knew they were serious. "What are you talking about, Marvin?"
"Why did you write those words on the bathroom wall? We don't care how or what you think of Kelvin, but we want you to admit to the act and all will be forgiven," he continued. He then took me into a nearby bathroom and showed me their cause for concern.
On the wall of one of the toilet stalls was written in felt tipped marker,
"Kelvin is a Nigger."
I was dumbfounded. All at once, the cryptic message we wrote earlier made sense. My heart sank as I imagined my friend, Kelvin, finding these words written directly at him. It was if the real world was crashing in on our sequestered, safe and sheltered world in the mountains and the entire place was somehow in need of a cleaning.
My parents grew up in the south and because of that, were a product of another time. A time when that word was as common as clouds. But in spite of that, we were instructed at a very early age that this was a hateful and shameful word. My mother often referred to it as "the nastiest word in the world." Regardless of their conservative politics and indoctrination, hate is easy to see when it is worn on the outside. Words can hurt, we were told, and there are just some things that you never can say without hurting another. My father often reminded us to judge people by what was found inside and not how they seem to be by simply looking at them.
"The poorest man you may meet could turn out to be your best friend and the plainest looking girl may some day be your most beloved sweetheart," he would say. "I've met many people who may look like they don't have the sense to tie their own shoes who were the smartest humans walking this tired earth."
My protestations and declarations of innocence came stumbling out. Partially out of shock at the act of thoughtless hate another had committed, and partially from the fear that they suspected me of this terrible thing. Kelvin always seemed a little quiet for my taste in friends, smarter by far than most of the other staff members, had always been there to help me when I needed it and was the first to laugh at my stupid jokes. In other words, he wasn't my best friend, but as good a friend and better than most of the guys I called "friend." But before I could go on, I asked where Kelvin was.
With a touch of sadness, Marvin explained that his parents were told of this by a call from Kelvin. His parents were understandably and indignantly upset. They had driven up that afternoon and took Kelvin home for the rest of the summer. Without saying much more, I knew that one or perhaps many around me were capable of doing something very wrong to someone who did nothing wrong.
It was a long time later that I began to grasp the loneliness that Kelvin was experiencing. The only black kid among a bunch of white kids, parents who no doubt should have been more involved and other factors of which I can only imagine. All of which probably created a very lonely young man. It was also much later that I heard that Kelvin had become a successful computer programmer and software designer. Although I have long since lost contact with him, I hope that he is filthy rich, lives in a big house and is happy beyond imagination. Success is the most comforting forms of revenge.
We never did find out who placed those foul words on the bathroom wall. It didn't really matter, someone did and that was enough. From that day on, I listened for any hint of racism that might be displayed by my fellow staff members. There were some racial comments made now and again, generally weak attempts at humor. But when it surfaced, we quickly commented, "hey, that ain't cool..." or something along those lines.
From that day on, I trusted and called only a few others my real friends.
Wednesday, July 05, 2006
As before, if you are just joining the story, it is advised you follow the links on the right to begin the story from Part One.
THE SCENT OF VANILLA - PART FIVE
By 1969 several Marines who had been sent to Vietnam during the early stages of the conflict began to return home, their tour of duty completed. It was also during this time that the United States was hopelessly divided on the issue of our involvement in that foreign war. The story of America in Vietnam has since been related in many ways and any single narrative cannot express the entire expression of emotions, events and reflections concerning this portion of our country’s history. The story is best told in individual tales. My current understanding of the war has only recently begun to come into focus and the vision that I have is indeed an ugly one. My first glimpse into the reality of the war was very different than the television news footage to which we were exposed daily, and which captured my attention but with little understanding.
Each camp season an active duty Navy or Marine paramedic would spend several weeks with the camp staff to serve as on-site emergency medical personnel. The GIs got to relax a while in the mountain air and on occasion be required to repair a skinned knee and perform first aid training, while the scout camp had access to expertly trained medics. Talking to the "Doc's," as we called them, was one of my favorite activities for they were full of stories of overseas adventures and experiences and were a never ending resource of the most disgustingly filthy jokes ever to be told. Both of these talents delighted me.
This summer was unique in that we had been assigned two Marines from the same unit who were being discharged soon. Both of these Marines were friendly, if a little quiet, but fast with the jokes and amazingly seemed to enjoy our camp food, which we considered to be one step up from lake algae. According to them however, "Marine Cuisine," was a contradiction in terms. Slowly, the camp staff grew closer to the Doc's, which resulted in an occasional story of Vietnam. Their stories would center around leeches and snakes, the look, feel and nature of the jungle itself and on rare instances the nature of "Charley."
The skinned knee business had been slow that summer and our marine Doc's jokingly requested that someone break a leg or something as they were extremely bored and had actually read all of our Playboy magazines. That evening, a group of us decided to liven up their dull existence by staging a fake emergency.
Our victim was to be Eddie, one the smaller staff members, wrapped in bandages and decorated with ample amounts of ketchup. After we were certain that the Doc's were fast asleep, we hauled Eddie on a stretcher up to the First-Aid Shack, which also served as their sleeping quarters. We excitedly beat on the cabin's door and called out, "Doc, Doc, Eddie's hurt - hurry! Doc..."
Suddenly, both men flew out of the door in their boxer shorts and began to bark out orders, calling for a Medivac, and demanding additional supplies. Their eyes were wide open and their faces were racked with concern. Their voices were excited and filled with soul deep fear. We all began to laugh as they began to tear at the fake bandages and Eddie's clothing. It was only then that they realized what was really transpiring. Each of us waited for them to join in our laughter or to be chastised with some good natured name calling, but it didn't happen.
Both of them stood slowly looking at us with disappointment and controlled anger. A long moment of silence followed and the larger of the two said, "This is not funny boys. God dammit, we thought we were still in 'Nam." As he finished those words he began to cry.
Immediately each of us started to tell them we were sorry, that it was only a joke, and that we didn't mean anything by it, everyone stepping on each other's words. But no amount of apology could undo the terrible pain we had caused. For a brief moment we had inadvertently transported them back to the hell on earth from which they had just escaped. They turned without another sound to try and go back to sleep. Shamefully, we walked in silence back to our tents with the terrible knowledge that our practical joke had injured someone in ways we could only begin to understand.
The next morning the perpetrators of the folly were called in to the Camp Director's office and were soon joined by the Marines. They explained that they understood that our prank was all in fun but there were things we needed to know about.
For the next hour they began to tell us a story of the Vietnam which the public would not hear for many years. They told us of the incredible horrors, the gut wrenching vision of hands-on death, the sleepless night fear, and of the paranoia that no one was going home alive. They further explained the reason they were taken out of action a couple of weeks before their actual tour of duty was completed.
Both Marines were the only survivors of a unit that had been ambushed in a rice field at night. All of their friends were dead and their pain was amplified since as medics they were unable to save any of them. Many times they would pause in their story telling to compose themselves and then continue. Looking beyond their eyes, the demon of fear and the monsters of war were still very much alive deep within their minds and memory.
Fortunately, I never had to face those particular demons myself, but I am often reminded of their existence whenever I see or hear of young men and women marching off to fight and kill other young men and women. As I look back over history, with very rare exception, I ask myself this simple question, “…and for what?” The demons and monsters of war may know the answer, but they ain’t saying.
They’re just laughing.
This section is for my new friend, Anne. Thanks, Anne, for the advice.
THE SCENT OF VANILLA - PART FOUR
The ensuing unbearably awkward minutes of small chatter revealed the basics that were important to a fifteen year old, where she went to school, (in nearby Banning), what subjects she enjoyed, (science and art), her favorite musical groups (Beatles, Doors and Turtles), that she was indeed Vickie's cousin, and most surprisingly, that she had been looking forward to meeting me.
The surprise of being a part of some devious plot of my older friend and her cousin was embarrassing and removed any bit of confidence I may have had in past dealings with girls. I usually never had a problem with speaking with girls. They had always fascinated me and I enjoyed their company over the company of other boys my age. They seemed to be a little wiser, more interesting, and certainly easier on the eyes. But now, I was having some problems putting together words in any coherent fashion. I thought I was dull, far from clever and probably not very funny.
This was perhaps the first time that I was entering into a conversation with a girl with the expressed desired outcome to be potentially romantic. The approach was completely foreign. And it wasn't working.
At some point, I decided to just step back and stop trying so hard to impress her. It was so much easier to just talk to her as if there wasn’t any romantic potential. I found it was much more fun to make her laugh because it was enjoyable to see her smile, rather than trying to make her like me or think I was a clever young man.
My nervousness went away, and I found that I was really enjoying myself and her mere presence. Plus, she was looking at me with those big brown eyes.
Rick and I spent over two hours talking and laughing with Donna and Vickie. They were to be at Buckthorn the entire summer just as we were. Plans were made to meet again, camp telephone numbers and addresses were exchanged. They promised to come to one of our campfire programs and to definitely keep in touch.
As we left the girls to return to our camp I was filled with a sense of incredible vitality and sexual energy. Rick evidently recognized my pleasure of the successful first meeting.
"I think she likes you, Terry"
"Really, do you think so? Jesus Rick, she's beautiful! My god, I am in love," I exclaimed.
Rick merely shook his head and smiled.
Donna would prove to be my first love. We met several times, took many walks together, eventually held hands, told each other how much we liked each other and how glad we were to have met, and so on. During many of our walks I would share my expanding learning regarding the trees, constellations and the birds of the area.
"This tree is a Jeffery Pine," I began. Picking up a bunch of the tree's needles I continued, "There are three needles in each grouping, and if you smell the bark, you can detect the smell of vanilla bean."
Both of us leaned into the tree's truck and took in the sweet scent. As our faces came together, Donna kissed me on the lips. I had prayed every night for a month for t his to happen, but had not expected it so soon.
We didn't speak for many minutes as the kiss continued and grew in intensity. Eventually we found ourselves on a soft carpet of pine needles, never breaking the embrace or the kiss. The embrace and kisses were awkward, yet unabashed. Rather than embarrassment it seemed the perfectly natural thing to do. It was as if we both understood that while we may not know what the hell to do, it was perfectly acceptable to admit ignorance and find out together. It was safe to be ourselves.
Our young, passionate, interludes continued the entire summer, and at our last meeting, late one evening we found ourselves again in each other's arms. Yet despite our increasingly fevered intentions, we did not have intercourse. It was at this last meeting that Donna also asked me to make love to her. But either fear, the desire to maintain a kind of limited purity to our short time together or just understanding that a few years needed to pass held me back. I remember telling her that I loved her deeply and that is was probably not the right time for us to go any further than we had at that point. I remember distinctly Donna saying nothing to me for a long time as she looked into my eyes and stroked my hair.
Finally, she broke the silence, rested her head on my chest and said, "Terry, I think I will always love you."
We then tickled each other until we feared our laughter might reveal our hiding place to anyone nearby. We dressed, walked slowly to her cabin, embraced and kissed each other one last time. I promised to write when school started again, turned and walked with a full heart back to my tent.
When the school year began we exchanged several letters and spoke on the phone a couple of times. I don't remember who stopped writing first, but I never saw her again. Each time I pass through Banning on the freeway to Palm Springs, or when ever I smell the bark of a Jeffery Pine tree, I feel the presence of a young fifteen year old girl with long brown hair and her promise of always loving me. Without a doubt, there remains in me a particular love for Donna, (or perhaps the memory of her) and occasionally dream of our first and last meetings.
I hope she dreams those sweet dreams as well.
Thursday, June 29, 2006
As before, start from the beginning before reading this section. Thanks.
THE SCENT OF VANILLA - PART THREE
Saturday morning arrived.
Much too early.
Everyone had talked about the previous evening's events well into the night and after finding another six pack of dad-beer, I learned the deep, personal meaning of the words "first hangover", with incredible insight. Breakfast was a Snickers bar which after downing I made very serious plans to sleep a few more hours when suddenly, Rick came back into the tent. Jumping upon his bunk and he loudly proclaimed, "The time is nigh, there is diabolical adventure awaiting us, my young charge!"
I simply groaned in protest, hoping he would simply shut up. His flair for the dramatic was wearing thin.
"You will arise from the ashes of experience like the Phoenix. There are mysteries to share and secrets to create. I am going to show you something today very few lads of your few years have witnessed," he continued.
Again, I said nothing, certain that he had finished the rest of the demon Budweiser and hoped he would re-create right before my aching eyes Ray Milland's performance in "The Lost Weekend."
The passing out cold part.
"I will give you one hour to bathe your putrid smelling flesh and get dressed in anything except a Boy Scout uniform, and to meet me at the rifle range. And oh yes, bring your hiking boots. You are about to follow the yellow brick road to Oz. We are crossing over to the promised land. I am going to reveal to you the secret trail to Camp Buckthorn!" The last few words were spoken inches from my face in a tone of hushed reverence. Knowing the full impact this would have on me, he leaped up and flung open our tent flaps, laughing wildly as he headed for the shower room.
I rose from my bunk on one elbow and grinned as if I been handed the keys to a brand new 1969 Mustang Convertible. Camp Buckthorn. The magic in that name echoed in my surprisingly clearing head. Camp Buckthorn. Twenty-six miles away if you traveled the winding mountain roads which lead to its closely guarded gates. Camp Buckthorn. The existence of a secret trail to its outlying environs had been speculated on for many years, which would reduce the traveling distance to only two miles. Camp Buckthorn. The closest camp in the area where it was well renown to inhabit that creature which held much interest, yet a great deal of mystery to me; girls.
As I made my way to the showers, I resolved to speak frankly with my parents next weekend and confess my old transgressions. I further resolved to create new ones just two miles away.
The trail, as revealed to me by Rick, was located near our camp lake and beyond the rifle range by several hundred yards. If one were not actually looking closely, it would be very easy to miss. The entire hike lasted only about forty-fivw minutes, but as we rounded the last switchback and our eyes rested on the roof tops of the Buckthorn cabins, I knew I was a world away from where our journey had begun.
I could hear voices and laughter wafting through the trees, many of which were immediately identifiable as belonging to females. My heart was pounding in my throat as Rick and I sauntered closer. I attempted to appear as if I had been a longtime Buckthorn resident, but as we encountered the first group of girls, it was quite obvious that we were outsiders. Maybe it our hiking boots or dashing good looks. Maybe it was because we did not appear to belong at a church camp.
A friendly, yet cautious woman who may have been twenty years old, came up to Rick and asked, "May I help you, gentlemen?"
"Oh God," I thought, "we were no more than ten steps into this foreign land and we have been identified as enemy agents!"
My worldly friend, however, in his usual confident tone, simply smiled and answered, "Why yes, we're looking for Vickie Rogers. Could you tell her that Rick is here and if she has a moment, we would like to talk to her."
"Sure, just wait here."
As the young woman left us standing near the group of young girls with whom she had previously been speaking and laughing, I turned to him and asked, "Vickie, who in the hell is Vickie?"
"Shut up, Terry. She's a girl I go to school with and I knew she was going to be here today. And if you are lucky, her cousin is here to meet you too."
Little did I know that Rick had planned this rendezvous for several weeks, and that part of the plan included me meeting Vickie's younger cousin.
Several minutes later an attractive blonde seventeen year old girl, accompanied by a shorter brunette walked towards us.
"Rick, you made it!" she called out.
For the next half hour Rick and Vickie talked between themselves, exchanging stories of the still early summer and the previous school year. I smiled at her cousin, and even may have said hello, I'm not sure, but I couldn't keep my eyes off of her.
Finally, I officially broke our silence, "My. Name. Is. Terry," I stuttered, as I extended my hand.
She returned the handshake and said, "Hi, my name is Donna."
Donna. This incredibly striking beauty had a name. Donna. She stood as high as my chin and had straight dark brown hair that reached her tiny waist. Her large brown eyes shimmered in the pine filtered sunlight and her hand was as soft as velvet. Donna. Her smile was not forced, nor nervous, but was proffered for me without hesitation.
Miss January immediately vanished from my mind forever.
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
There were numerous animal cages and terrariums of various sizes to clean and refurbish awaiting the small animals and lizards that would soon be captured by the over zealous pre-teen boys arriving in seven days. I set up my own weather station which I had brought with me from home, the product of a recent science fair project. With the addition of a few other displays on soil conservation and wild edible plants, several colorful charts of birds, trees and star maps, the room eventually took on the ambitious feel of a mini-natural history museum. Once satisfied everything looked right and exciting I buckled down to study the subject for I was to expound on the entire summer. For, with the exception of what little I learned about clouds while playing with the weather station, (the one my father actually built) I knew precious little about nature. If the truth were known, I couldn't tell a Steller's Jay from a Mountain Chickadee. But by the time the first campfire smoke stained face looked up to me and inquired about finding the North Star I had learned a great deal. Fortunately, I kept up my studies the entire summer and will attest to the fact that by the closing of the summer camp session my knowledge was considerable. Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and provide the early summer campers the same in-depth program that the later campers received.
Despite our assigned duties and responsibilities, our primary concern and top priority was the creation of our staff quarters. The staff was assigned one of about fourteen "camp sites," (actually just relatively flat areas spread about the hillsides among the trees), but was special due to the site's access to electricity. Our housing consisted of twelve family style, canvas tents erected on eight-foot square wooden platforms, placed in three rows of four. The most desirable tent locations were along the back row next to tall shady pines. In the middle of the day these tents were quite comfortable and cool. The other tents, however, were placed in the open away, from even a single leaf's shade, and were infamous for melting candles and warping record albums. Of course, newer staff members were assigned tents along "Oven Alley."
Two staff members were assigned to each tent and each was allowed two electrical outlets. With the addition of multiple extension cords, one could set up a fan, a small stereo, a hot plate and a lamp. If you were truly destined for ultimate coolness, you would install a ultra-violet "black light" to illuminate one of several fluorescent wall posters. With a little effort and imagination, a tent could reflect the personality of its inhabitants. Or perhaps one’s desired personality.
The staff area was roped off from the prying eyes and annoying commotion of younger, and certainly unwanted passersby. A rustic, ranch-like entry gate was erected from pine logs replete with a swinging hand carved wooden sign which read, "Resurrection City," in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King's Poor People's Campaign encampment on Washington D.C. the previous summer.
The final touch to Resurrection City was the installation of "Radio B.S." Radio B.S. was comprised of a speaker positioned in each tent and wired from the best stereo set owned by Keith Baxter, a bespectacled, skinny, nose picking, junior staff member. Keith later was to grow up to be a successful radio personality in the San Francisco Bay area, playing jazz and blues. But as the official announcer of Radio BS, his choice of music left a great deal to be desired.
Keith had brought a whole collection of 60's bubble gum music like The Archies and Bobby Sherman. One evening his albums mysteriously vanished to be replaced with The Rolling Stones, The Doors and Cream. After some covert negotiations, Keith played an entire summer of Jim Morrison only after his good copy of "Sugar, Sugar" was returned unscratched.
Each morning "Reveille" was followed by the increasingly mellow voice of the now cool Keith Baxter. "Rise and shine, children of God, it is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Rise and shine, greet the new day with a smile, and how would you like your powdered eggs this morning?" Suddenly, the sweet sounds of Mick and the boys would belt out "Honky Tonk Women".
The camp itself was actually quite impressive. We had an Olympic size pool in which you could swim a mile and receive a real cool patch to sew on your trunks if you did eighty-eight laps without resting. There was a small lake for boating and fishing, complete with a lodge to store canoes and other aquatic paraphernalia which we delightfully christened "The Oar House". Two large fire ring amphitheaters, large enough to seat the entire camp and special guests lay at opposite ends of the camp. Various simple wood frame "lodges" were scattered among the trees and were utilized as program centers or would house The Trading Post.
The Trading Post was probably the most important building to these youngsters. At the trading post, campers purchased necessary craft supplies, whittling knives and other important Scout paraphernalia. More importantly however, a city kid could find refuge in this wilderness in the form of an overly syruped Pepsi and a tasty Butterfinger. Since, as a camper you had to do your own cooking, I am certain to which, if the trading post had not been available, many of them would have suffered severe malnutrition.
All of this was spread over several square miles of incredibly beautiful wilderness. I often marveled as to the ability of these woods to maintain a primeval pristine quality after this annual assault. Yet each time I returned, the trees, the speckled granite rocks and the deep carpet of pine needles appeared as fresh as it did before the first eleven year old hatchet wielding boy on a quest for virgin fire wood ever approached this place.
Truly, one of the things I have learned about nature is its resiliency. Looking at the marvelous patterns set into the face of a weathered granite cliff or the ability of a fire scarred Jeffery Pine to prosper and grow stronger provided me on more than one occasion reflections of the insignificance of my day to day problems and crises. If something as simple as that rock face can only look more interesting and incredibly, more wondrously beautiful as time and the elements pound against it, I am sure I can survive this traffic jam, tax audit and quarrel with the wife.
The entire week was full of hauling tents, camp stoves and other outdoor living equipment up and down rugged hills and through the trees. But, finally, as Friday evening of this preparatory week approached, the camp director, a tall Mormon with a hearty laugh and sense of fun, announced to his very tired staff that the camp was ready to receive campers. The rest of the evening and Saturday would be our own.
Now this proclamation was not one to take lightly. I savored each word as he spoke. My imagination took flight at the idea that we as a collective group would have almost thirty-six hours of relatively unsupervised time on our hands - for there were only five adult staff members and over twenty junior members. The odds were in our favor that we could engage in some sort of mischief without fear of discovery by anyone over the age of 25. The other factor, which we took into consideration, was that of the five senior staff members present, two of them were between the age of 18 and 20 years old. This fantastic situation could not have been better planned for a group of boys just beginning to experience wet dreams and old, worn out Playboy magazines. The fruits of our week long labor would no doubt be harvested this weekend. Unfortunately, our plans would not pan out as expected but reap rewards which would be collected much later that summer.
As we left the meeting, Rick pulled me aside and told me to get my swim trunks and to meet him at the Oar House in fifteen minutes. The hour was late but there was at least a good hour of daylight left, so I was instructed not to waste a single second. Not having a clue as to what he had in mind I followed orders and found him a few minutes later at the lake placing two canoes into the water. Rick, being on the aquatic staff had access to all sorts of boats and other water toys.
I grabbed a paddle, took one of the canoes and paddled out to the middle of the lake to a buoy which he had indicated was to be our rendezvous point. Rick soon joined me and without a word took hold of the small buoy and began to pull the anchor rope into his canoe. I could barely make out a small white shape coming to the surface.
With one final tug the anchored ice chest was brought into his canoe. Unsealing its tightly secured lid he revealed his precious secret booty.
There, still floating in ice and muddy lake water was an untouched six-pack of Budweiser. "Bud" the beer of my father, and a drink which I still had yet to acquire a taste suddenly took on aspects of Solomon's Gold and magical nectar in my mind. Thinking that now was as good a time as any to begin training my palate, I gratefully accepted his offer of a cool one.
The first beer is always the best one and the most quickly consumed. This I had learned from keen observation in the presence of my carpenter father at the end of a hot summer day on a construction site. But the second beer is the one to savor and truly enjoy.
We were alone on the lake, the sound of crickets and bullfrogs starting to wander in amongst the soft rippling sound of water being pulled with each paddle stroke. The aluminum canoe acted as a resonator for the gentle lapping of water against its sides. We spoke quietly but not often, and though our canoes drifted apart, our voices magically carried across the surface of the lake. We spoke of hoped-for girl friends at home, of school beginning in fall, (perhaps already realizing the shortness of this summer), and we began to talk about our lack of experiences and how we must alter that sad fact.
Before long but well into nightfall we met once again near the ice chest marker buoy which he had carefully replaced. The beer was now working on our minds as we drifted onto more serious topics, no doubt sounding extremely wise and precise.
Rick said, "You know if the war is still on in two years, I am outta' here. I am not going to fight in that stupid, wicked place."
"You’d go to Canada?" I asked.
"Bet your ass. There's just too much I want to do in this life before I have to exit the world," he proclaimed.
I thought for a moment and realized that there were a million things I still wanted to do before I died. But dying seemed such a remote concept. I had never let my mind wander in that direction before.
Rick continued, " ... and the bitch of it all is that we will probably get blown up by the damn Russians before we reach 19."
Rick took obvious pleasure in cursing out loud, away from the ears of parents and/or other authority figures. I joined in his pleasure, but did not have his expertise in the skill.
"Why would the damn Russians want to bomb us?" I offered, "I see no reason why anyone would want to invade this country. If you ask me, we will probably blow ourselves up and we will glow in the dark for a thousand years and the Russians will simply wait till then and walk in and set up shop without a single shot. Rick, its nothing but a waiting game, who is going to kill themselves first. If it's not the bomb, it will be the pollution. If it's not the pollution, it will be some drug crazed maniac dumping acid in our water. If not that, it will simply be our inability to get along. God, I do not want to die and don't plan on anyone else deciding that fact for me."
By now we were well into our third beer, laying back in our separate canoes staring into the full star lit moonless night. Rick raised up with his hands on the gunnels, smiled and said, "you know, there is hope for you yet. I predict a future member of the Students for a Democratic Society is now being formed among these pines," and began to laugh.
I was surprised by my seemingly radical stance, which I had suddenly taken. But I told myself, well, what's fair is fair and anybody can figure that out. We were silent once again as our mortality began to drift into our minds. I finally asked, "What do you want to do before you die?"
Rick thought for just a few seconds and answered, "Have an orgasm with someone else present, learn to appreciate the taste of scotch, fall in love with a European woman, watch the sunrise over a Scottish lake, visit Lenin's tomb, see Morrison in concert and climb Whitney from the west side. How about you, my man?"
My answer came slowly, for this was a very important question I thought, as if an incorrect one might be placed on my permanent school record to haunt me forever. The sex part was easy. Certainly loosing one's virginity was high on the yet-to-do list. I had little desire to drink scotch and I would have rather met John Lennon than see Lenin's rotting corpse. It suddenly occurred to me that it would be best to rectify really bad past sins before having to deal with the possibility of a vengeful, memory-like-an-elephant, permanent-record-reading God.
"I would apologize to my parents," I finally said.
"For lying to them when they should have known the truth."
"For simply lying to them for things I did and either blamed others or not having a reasonable answer for events. Your parents don't lie to you, but to stay out of trouble you lie to them and then you feel like crap for a while because they probably really know the truth and just deal with it."
Rick knew the sincerity in my voice, "Well kids are supposed to lie and get caught so that you learn not to lie when you are older. It's just the way it works. OK, now what else would you do?"
"That's easy, fall in love with a tall blonde that looks like Miss January" I answered instantly.
At that precise moment in time, God, or the Air Force, was no doubt listening in. The crickets were the first to grow silent, and the frogs soon followed. As the realization settled in that it was suddenly very quiet my eyes were snapped onto a reddish, purple glow in the northwestern sky. The light seemed to fill the western portion of the camp as the glow moved towards and over us. Trailing behind the pulsating orb was an apparently twenty mile yellow tail. This large mass was followed by a half dozen smaller but similarly streaking red-purple forms. Time froze until the objects passed overhead leaving their shape and color etched into the upper atmosphere and our retinas.
Rick and I looked at each other and thought it was either aliens or the apocalypse, in any case our only words, in unison, were "Oh Shit!"
As we scrambled to bring the canoes to the shore I was certain that I would never to have the opportunity to explain all of my sins to my parents and that I would no doubt pass through this world without having experienced all of its earthly pleasures.
We quickly jogged back to our tents finding the rest of the staff huddled around a radio, listening for a news report of the certain end of the world. About twenty minutes later we discovered that Vandenburg Air Force Base had aborted a missile launch gone awry. The pieces of the rocket had re-entered the atmosphere causing a fantastic display for Southern California residents. It seems that God and the President of the United States had given me a reprieve and another chance to redeem my short, but obviously wicked past.