Kammler cursed as the driver swerved the armored car to avoid the stitching of bullets eating up the road from the strafing American fighter. Civilian transport long vanished, the military vehicle was nothing more than a target of opportunity for the Thunderbolts and Mustangs that ranged the skies of Lower Silesia unhindered in front of the advancing American ground forces. The car abruptly stopped, angled into the ditch, jolting Kammler against the useless weaponry of the open-topped turret, its ammunition expended long before he had commandeered it. The roar of the attacking fighter receded, then grew, as Kammler peered over the armor to watch it make another run. But no bullets this time; the silver Thunderbolt just buzzed the stalled car, pulled up in a tight turn, waggled its wings, and flew off, obviously out of ammunition itself, and low on fuel.
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Luck. Not much of that remaining in the ruins of Germany that early May in 1945, but luck is something that can sometimes be made by the will, and Obergruppenführer Dr. Hans Kammler was a willful man.
The starter ground, the motor coughed to life, telling Kammler that his driver was uninjured and intent on continuing the journey. If not for the sake of the mission, he drove on to be gone when the fresh fighter planes, alerted to an easy kill by the retreating American pilot, came on the scene. The man who waited for his appearance, Karl Hanke, the Gauleiter of Lower Silesia, might yet not be disappointed. The journey continued, to Waldenburg, to the Wenceslas Mine, to the underground facility known as Der Riese, The Giant, that housed the last, desperate hope of the Reich, codenamed Kronos.
When Kammler first heard of Die Glocke, the Bell, he had dismissed it as another of the crackbrained schemes for the development of a war-winning wonderweapon that wasted so much time and resources of the increasingly-strained Reich. As a civil engineer in charge of constructing facilities for Germany’s jet aircraft and guided missile programs, he had seen his share, and then some. Even the schemes that were technically feasible, he knew by late 1944, would be too little, too late, to even slow the flood of the Allied advance, the mongrels and shopkeepers of the Americans and the British to the West, the barbarian hordes of the Russians from the East. But Die Glocke, as incredible as it sounded, appeared to actually function. What it actually was doing was open to question, but it was certainly doing something, and that was enough for those on high to divert men and materiel to the project.
When he found himself being briefed on the project by the brilliant physicist Prof. Walther Gerlach himself, Kammler suspended his disbelief. He made no attempt to understand the strange concepts that Gerlach was outlining: “vortex compression,” “toroidal plasma,” “magnetic field separation,” and suchlike. The simpler terms “antigravity” and “atomic power,” however, demanded full attention. Kammler knew that one did not need to know how a rifle worked to aim and fire it. Results were enough. He threw himself and his staff into the project.
But, yes, late at night, working under the stimulus of military-grade amphetamines for the lack of coffee, the second thoughts and doubts and misgivings flooded his mind. What of the many and sometimes contradictory test results were actually important, and more to the point, practical? The law of unintended consequences, although not found in any technical school texts, was one that every good engineer was more than familiar with, and Kammler was a very good engineer. He would shake his head, rub his eyes, light another cigarette, and attempt to banish such thoughts. It would all come together. The Führer himself had signed off on Die Glocke. One must do one’s duty, at all costs.
But now, Kammler reflected, as the camouflaged entrance to his destination was opened and his vehicle drove through it, the Führer was dead, what remained of Germany’s war machine was being bled dry in a futile resistance to the furious onslaught of the Allies, and duty was no more than dry dust in the mouth. But, but—there was hope, there must always be hope. Kammler crawled from the turret of the armored car, a locked satchel tucked tightly under his arm, and followed the young SS officer who was his guide into the maze of tunnels that would lead him to his partner in a last-gasp effort to change the tide of time.
The project had been named Laternentrager, the Lanternholder. Now it would be known as Kronos, its true purpose revealed to its minders at last. Antigravity was only a part of its abilities—travel through space only one of its uses. Incredible as it seemed, time travel was now possible with the Bell, and a voyage to the past would be the salvation of the Third Reich.
How a Waffen-SS general had become part of the project was unclear to Kammler, but his audience at the secret meeting in Berlin were very aware that Jakob Sporrenberg relayed the plans from the highest leadership circles of the Reich. That the highest leadership of the Reich might now be casting itself adrift from present realities was a thought that came unbidden, but in force, to Kammler’s mind as he listened to the general’s orders.
One of the researchers had fitted an experimental mirror to the Bell, and found that it reflected images from the past during tests—tests that involved the Bell actually fading from sight for short durations. Sporrenberg had no grasp of the principles involved, Kammler saw, but his enthusiasm was undeniable. The Bell would be used to change history, and ensure the triumph of the Thousand Year Reich.
Sporrenberg announced that two volunteers of the highest competence and political purity would be needed. Not to worry, the problems with radiation shielding and chemical contamination had been worked out, and no scientists or test subjects had died recently, no matter what the stories were. The test runs had been successful, perhaps even spectacular, and the few remaining technical problems would be solved in short order.
The two heroes of the Fatherland, simply put, were to travel across space to Moscow, and across time to spring 1940, come to ground in the yards of the Kremlin itself, and assassinate Stalin before he could betray Germany and the agreements of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact by invading the Baltic states and Finland. The new Soviet leadership, freed from the peasant dictator, would recommit itself to friendship with Germany and make common cause against the bourgeois democracies of the West. No Eastern Front, no Stalingrad, no Battle of Kursk, no long, bitter, bloody defeated retreat from Moscow—instead, triumph after triumph, the wealth of the world at Germany’s feet.
His imagination seized by possibilities, Kammler volunteered.
Hanke and Kammler, partners reunited in the depths of the Giant, gazed from the gallery overlooking Die Glocke. Round, roughly bell-shaped, about three meters wide and four and a half meters tall, the Bell sat in its cradle, umbilicals trailing off to the banks of circuit boxes and control panels, red stars and Cyrillic script adorning its sides.
“There it stands, Gauleiter Hanke. Our deliverance, disguised as a Russian machine. Are you ready?”
“Indeed, Herr General. All remains as planned?”
“Yes, certainly. I have my satchel, I see that you have your briefcase. Our change of uniform, as does our destiny, awaits us.”
“Let us then proceed. After you.”
After climbing into the cramped quarters of the Bell, the two watched as the hatch was closed and sealed from the outside, the inside hatch wheel spinning as if by itself.
When the last tumbler of the door mechanism clicked into place, Kammler’s fingers flew to the instrument panel, readjusting settings, throwing switches, entering new numbers in the mechanism’s navigational systems. Those outside had no way of knowing that their careful computations had been overriden.
“Now, Hanke, we wait for the final charging to be completed.”
Hanke adjusted the unfamiliar Soviet uniform he wore. “God in Heaven, I’m glad we’re not actually going through with Sporrenberg’s mad scheme. When you proposed that I volunteer as well, I first thought your reason had departed to the same regions as Hitler’s, may he be burning in Hell.”
Outside, technicians approached the Bell, slid into place a cylinder of Xerum 525, the so-called red mercury, and sealed it in its compartment.
“He is, he is.” Kammler gave a grim smile. “Can you believe that just a year ago we would not have let ourselves even think of the words that we have this moment uttered? This Reich is through.”
Twin cylinders, encased in ceramics, begin spinning in opposite directions to each other behind their seats.
“It is hard to fathom. But this machine, this Bell, gives us a chance to raise a new Reich from the ashes of the old! The Fourth Reich will not be led by a mad Austrian of uncertain ancestory, but by a pure Aryan, raised from birth to be the saviour of the Fatherland!”
Kammler forced another smile, as grim as the first. He had his own thoughts about the future of National Socialism. Let the looted gold and jewelery in what should have been Hanke’s weapons case be used to raise a new Reich in the pampas of Argentina. The pound sterling notes and the dollars in his satchel would buy a new identity and a life of safety and comfort in the cosmopolitan streets of Buenos Aires.
“I must admit, Kammler, upon reflection I thought that killing Stalin made a sort of sense. Had Sporrenberg cornered me first, he may well have convinced me, after all….I am very glad you were able to explain the impossibilities to me in private so soon after.”
Meters dithered and wobbled, banks of red telltale lights began to switch to orange, then to green, bathing their faces with their shifting light.
“Well, it may well be possible to change the past, as I told you. However, what we change may have results far beyond what we can foresee.”
“Your law of unintended consequences.”
“Correct, sir. As oily as their ideas may prove to be at times, one ignores the philosophers at one’s peril. In conversation with Prof. Gerlach early in this project, he told me of the objections to time travel that the serious thinker must consider. The Time Traveler’s Paradox, he called it. One travels back in time to correct a great injustice to one’s father, for example. That injustice is eliminated, one’s father’s life is forever changed. He never meets one’s future mother, thus, one is never born at all—and one ceases to exist.”
The Bell thrummed and shook, relays snapped open and clicked shut, power building for release.
“An unintended consequence indeed! Travelling to the future by only the time it will take our Bell to travel from here to South America is time enough for me.”
“Myself as well. When the good Professor was taken off this project, that’s when my doubts started in earnest. Ah, the last lights are turning green. Strapped into your seat? Good—“
Somewhere in the maze of wires and resistors and bits and pieces cobbled together from old radio sets, nightfighter radars, and gunnery aiming devices that made up the Bell’s computational engine, a vacuum tube salvaged from the destruction of the submarine pens in Kiel, stressed from the surge of power that would transmit the atoms of the Bell and its crew through the solid mass of stone surrounding them, began to overheat, flickered, then failed.
A bank of lights that had been green suddenly blinked back to red, but too late for a warning.
Commander Zhao of the People’s Liberation Army stared across his desk at the representative of the Red Guards who stood in front of him, making his demands. The two prisoners, secured to metal chairs, stared at them both. Zhao’s four soldiers, one on each side of each prisoner, did their best to stand stonily impassive.
“Comrade Commander, we must contact the Party authorities in Haikou immediately! Your intransigence is criminal and counter-revolutionary! If the PLA cannot deal with this threat to the Chinese people, then the people must deal with it themselves!”
“Comrade Liu. Let me be blunt. I will explain again. We have what appears to be—no, no, you will listen to me! Appears, I say, to be a Soviet Russian craft and two captured Soviet Russian crew. The craft may be a secret weapon built with science and technology unknown to us. One of the men appears to have strange burns on his body, possibly from some radiation, and may be close to death. With these two men, we find what looks like gold, precious stones, and American and British currency. And you propose to tell the Secretary of Gansu Province that this mess somehow has appeared in our laps, in a tiny, out of the way village in the middle of China, with no one else noticing its flight across our borders, our fields and cities, our military bases? And that they wandered the countryside and were sheltered and fed by our villagers? You must be insane!”
Liu’s answer was shrill. “Comrade Commander, precisely! We must alert the people to this threat to our integrity by the Soviet revisionists! It is our duty! You would have us be traitors to the Revolution!”
“My young Comrade. Your revolutionary zeal and commitment to the people is without blemish, and stands as a shining beacon to us all. However, gather your sense, man! I will tell you what happens when one troubles his own house. If this incident is reported, I will be called to Haikou, you will be called to Haikou, everyone we know will be detained and questioned, everyone who has seen that craft and these Russians will be detained and questioned, along with their friends and families, and goats and chickens and pigs, no doubt. Many will be detained for some time. Many will be re-educated. You and I? All that, and more. And for what? We will be punished for pushing this problem off on other’s shoulders. Others who are much more powerful than we ever will be.
“Liu, you are a man of this place. You are a man of the countryside, a true peasant, son of the people. You have more sense than the Red Guards who swarm out of the cities like locusts, devouring what lies before them.
“The Cultural Revolution must remain strong and steer its true course. But let me tell you: do you know what brought me to this village? The Red Guards found that once, years ago, I was responsible for a Soviet Russian liaison officer. He was with our unit for many months, and we became friends.
“For that, even though our two countries were fraternal revolutionary forces at the time, this was a crime for which I must atone. Lucky, lucky for me that my general was able to station me in this unknown spot, instead of years of the camps. This spot will serve China best by remaining unknown, trust me.”
“This is still wrong! I must object!”
The commander sighed, shoving a folder across his desk. “Please look at this copy of your personal record. Do you think the politicals are the only ones who keep close watch on those they serve? The PLA is the cornerstone of the Revolution, and we know our duties.
“I commend you for your efforts, I do. Especially the effort to re-educate several of the young and comely daughters of the bourgeoisie in our little community, as little as some others may see the value in it….”
The young man’s face turned pale. Commander Zhao noted with satisfaction that Liu didn’t even bother to look at the papers. He did have sense.
“All right, then? We can settle this problem without help?”
He turned to his soldiers standing guard. “Take care of these men, quickly—these ‘Russkis.’”
The uninjured prisoner caught the word ‘Russki,’ and reacted. “Wir sind nicht Russen! Wir sind Deutsche!” “I am sorry, my friend—what little Russian I once knew is long forgotten, and a good thing, too. Take them away.”
An unpleasant business, this, he thought. But one good thing came of it. Young Liu, who reminded him so much of himself at that age, full of faith and zeal, lacking in perspective, had at least learned a good lesson today. He had learned the truth of the rule of unintended consequences.
The four German characters are historical figures. Needless to say, many liberties were taken. Kammler, Sporrenberg and Gerlach have been linked to Die Glocke, the mysterious wonder weapon of the Nazis. I ran across Hanke's name when I was reading the speculations about Die Glocke, and although his connection to Die Glocke (assuming any truth to it) was tenuous at best, he seemed to fit in. Both Hanke and Kammler may or may not have disappeared in the general region around Der Riese in early May 1945. The other two survived the war, Gerlach living to a respectable old age, Sporrenberg hung by the Polish authorities for his crimes.
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The summer of 1941. Sometimes, yes, I think about those days. Sometimes, yes, I remember those days, even when the memory does not force itself upon me.
I drove a tank. The KV-1A, a good machine, but to face the Panzers of Guderian? We did what we could. There was no option to do else.
I drove a tractor. The collective thrived, in spite of all. The Whites, the kulaks, the reactionaries—well, they were easily dealt with. An enemy identified is an enemy that will not stand. Those who stumbled on a point of debate? Who knows—one learns not to debate.
The invasion changed all. Poland—what was Poland, but a land to the west now returned? But, my friends, we were returned half, and a portion demands the whole.
So—the betrayal began. And who was betrayed, and who was made the fool? I am not a wise man. I leave that question for the wise men, who may have more to lose than me.
From my collective, I was chosen for the defenders of Mother Russia. Such a duty I welcomed. I will never waver in my sense of honour for this service.
When I plowed the fields, the furrows were straight, the planters who followed in my wake planted well. The crops flourished, the people were fed, the Collective thrived, and the Soviet was strong.
To drive a tank—the task was a challenge, but the challenge was within my grasp. For Stalin, for Russia, for the Internationale—these things are real, and drew me forward—but the Fascist advance, the rape of my country, the destruction of my homeland, my Mother—these things cried vengeance.
The patrol had come upon little resistance. This was cause for worry. When we spied the German tank, a sense of relief was apparent. Misplaced relief—a Panzer III may be inferior to a T-34, but all our machine could do was to resist as well as we could. But battle was upon us, and anticipation yielded to action.
The letter from Anya in my coat pocket—I felt it, moved my hand to feel it, before the command came to advance.
“I wait for you, and know that you wait for me. I long for you, and know that you do the same. And you know that we are united, not only in our belief for our land and our belief in Comrade Stalin, but for our belief in each other and in the future of our children who will see the dawn of a new world when the Fascist menace is sent to the hell from which it came.”
We believed. And believe yet.
The German tank rotated it’s turret, let loose a shell that plowed the ground around us, with no promise of a sowing of growth to follow.
My commander ordered a hard left, then a halt, to allow our gunner chance to aim. The shot landed wide.
I slewed our tank right, then advanced, then maneuvered for advantage as a ragged fire of small arms burst from the enemy flank. Another shell from the panzer burst in the space where we once were.
Again, our commander ordered halt, then fire. This time, our shell made contact between the hull and the turret. The turret lifted, settled, smoke billowed, and the Panzer made spasm, belched more smoke, and died.
Then, unexpected, a hatch opened, a figure, once human, emerged, enflamed, somehow pulled itself out of the hell of the burning machine, and fell to the ground, dead.
In some sense, yes, I understood that this man could well have been myself. In some sense, the Internationale united this German’s fate with my own, a pawn of the powers that connive to grind the common man to dust in service of Capital.
Yet this man had died hundreds of kilometers from his homeland. This man had died in the land that gave me birth, and nurtured me, and this was the land that I was prepared to assure that he would never own.
I felt Anya’s letter against my heart, and felt the pages sent after. The letters sent from friends and family, some still fighting with me, others whose fight has ended, but whose struggle will still live on.
I felt the words, struggling to describe the horror, the pain, the brutality and the bravery, as the bombs fell from the screaming Stukas, the bombs that ravaged our collective, the bombs that took our friends, our future, but not our faith.
The bombs that took my Anya.
We drive towards Berlin.
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A program of new, creative, challenging and entertaining music played by master musicians--the Kronos concert last night fulfilled my expectations. Inadequate as my vocabulary may be to translate the experience, I'll try to give a few thoughts.
The Terry Riley piece premiered last night, "Transylvanian Horn Courtship", was a remarkable half hour, profoundly grounded in his study of Indian music without falling into any "world music" excesses--only at a few points was a subtle Indian motif apparent. I wish I could find pictures of the instruments used for most of that piece--Stroh violins--and viola and cello--built for Kronos and Riley by Walter Kitundu. The instruments were simple and visually stunning. The timbre of the instruments complemented the almost subliminal Indian basis of the music perfectly. Can I put my finger on exactly why a horned string instrument pitched a fifth lower than normal should do that? No, I can't, but trust me, it did. A very mature work that impresses me as a statement of what Riley has learned over decades of his study of Indian music.
The first half of the program opened with a J.G. Thirwell (also known as Foetus) work, "Nomatophobis", starting dark and violent, spinning out to a gentle, quiet fade to silence--that sort of quiet yet complex and expressive passage that Kronos does so well.
John Zorn's "Selections from The Dead Man"--Zorn as prankster, fun for the audience as well as for the Quartet. The first section left the bows of Harrington and cellest Zeigler's with shredded strings. One can imagine the cacophony that produced that result. The end of every section was marked with a dramatic, noisy unison page-turning. The final section featured an unexpected visual/aural component--the bows were slashed through the air like swords in an intricate whirring dance, accompanied with a great cloud of rosin. Both the audience and the players were quite delighted with the effect.
The arrangement of Ram Narayan's "Alap from Raga Mishra Bhairavi" was a thing of sheer beauty. Harrington played the drone on a shruti box, and John Sherba switched to an Indian stringed instrument that I couldn't identify--not a sarangi, I'm sure--, but Hank Dutt carried the piece on viola. Transportational.
The final piece before intermission, Aleksandra Vrebalov's "...hold me, neighbor, in the storm...", was a powerful performance of a powerful evocation of the violence and emotion of the ethnic explosion that was the late Yugoslavia in the '90's. The beginning of the work was an evocation of tumult, Harrington performing a folk instrument, the gusla (according to the notes), Sherba playing a tapan, a double headed drum, accompanied by percussive exclamations and uniform footstamping. The piece then moves into a spirited exploration of folk themes, finally punctuated by the rumble of thunder, or explosions, turning the dancing folk music nervous, edgy, and frantic. After a female voice singing, apparently, a folk tune, returns some stability to the music, a recording of a muezzin then contrasts with the Western European sound of the live music, creating a somewhat tense synthesis of the various threads of that region's history. Quite an impressive work from a young composer.
Much of the audience was drawn as much by curiousity as familiarity with Kronos, I felt, but they were receptive and responsive. Riley himself seemed quite happy with the result--he was beaming as he was called onstage to take his bows with the musicians. And I enjoyed it myself!
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Well, I've been reading--big surprise, eh?
Recently finished William Least Heat-Moon's Roads to Quoz: An American Mosey, and I could wish that it had lasted a couple of hundred pages longer. His 1982 debut, Blue Highways, became an almost instant classic of American roadtrip reporting, with a sharp eye for the geography, architecture, history and people along the roadmap's blue highways, the two-lane routes that tie together the heartland from coast to coast.
Roads to Quoz is similar, but it's a collection of several smaller journeys, each covering several states, along roads famous and less so, every story faceted and fascinating. Heat-Moon is now older, and with a traveling companion, the lovely and perceptive Q, and they make a great team as they listen to the stories they find along the way. His writing, always clear and nuanced, now often becomes a thing of beauty in itself. The first paragraph of almost every chapter is a perfect jewel--which makes it a bit difficult to stop reading, but I'm not complaining.
Anyone with any interest in the podunks and backwaters of the great American landscape, and the amazing people who live there, will find this the best read time in ages, I'm betting.
When the big ones die—
well, we’ll never see their like again!
Sad then, a hole in the world,
never to be filled.
Building’s refuse hauled away,
stone of artful design,
Best thing, to die a small one.
Small things are always here,
no beginning, no end to the line.
We cover Earth with our small joys,
replaceable as rain,
shiny beetles, the many facets of sand.
We don’t go away, we small ones—
and that’s the biggest thing.
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Back to the Roadside Pharmacy, after too long away--
Tuesday night, there were just a few of us gathered at the Pharmacy, even on such a momentous evening as this. Most of the regulars had decided to stay in with family, watching the returns and biting their nails in the comfort of dens and living rooms. I couldn’t blame them, but I found myself wishing maybe a couple more had showed up here for a drink. But then, this spot is never too crowded anyway, and the company at hand was just fine.
As I sat at the bar, nursing only my second beer, the barkeep glanced over at my glass and said, “Still no job offers?”
“Nope. And State Copper just closed, I saw in the paper. That’s another 150 people looking for work….”
“Well, that’s too bad, but don’t go looking for any handouts around here.”
She picked up the empty plastic basket from down the bar, scooped it full of peanuts, and shoved it my direction, coming to rest an inch and a quarter from my hand.
“De nada.” Glancing up at the TV, she said, “Looks like Florida’s going for him. That’s freakin’ amazing—one less to worry about.”
“Not over ‘till it’s over.”
“That’s right—and a damned good thing you didn’t say anything about fat ladies singing.”
Down the bar, the cat we call Fat Freddy stifled a hoot, so I flung a peanut at him, when the barkeep turned her back.
Now the barkeep had nothing to worry about in the weight department, and general and genial ribaldry is a part of life here, but still, some places we just don’t go, as I had learned.
No, I don’t feel like explaining about it right now—
Anyway, we’d settled back to paying full attention to the flickering old set that had been pulled out of storage for the occasion. Most years not even the World Series merited more than the last couple games here, and don’t ask for the sound to be turned up. We tend to prefer feeding quarters in the juke box, even if the vending company had stopped stocking vinyl some years ago. When that came down, folks just pulled out boxes from under the bed and out of mouldy basement closets, and brought their teenage 45 collections down here. Hey, it works for us, even though most of us were teenagers in several different decades. Hell, I’ve been a teenager for about four decades myself.
So, even now, a stilted version by some anonymous jazz band of “Take the ‘A’ Train” competed with the pundits pandering profundities on the tube. Didn’t matter, we could see the states on the map change color.
Right about the time the “A” train left the station and A Flock of Seagulls set down, a tentative noise from the door drew our attention. It’s rude to stare, so after a quick glance, we shifted our eyeballs to the mirror behind the bar.
This fellow was young, no more than thirty, wiry, sandy hair, nothing exceptional, except he gave every appearance of having stepped out of The Grapes of Wrath—the book, not the movie, if that makes any sense.
Somewhere between the battered herringbone driving cap, the faded light blue shirt buttoned up to the neck, longsleeved, the shapeless, patched but clean bluejeans with the skinny black belt, and a pair of boots that a recent attempt at polishing only made matters worse, he looked for the world like an Okie come to town on Saturday night with a two dollar bill in his pocket and two quarters slipped into his left sock.
That is to say, he looked better dressed than at least two or three of the regulars, just dressed a bit—differently.
What really made us look, though, was the expression he unknowingly carried on his face. His eyes were wide, wide open, but moving slowly, taking in everything, not sure what he was seeing, but determined to come to terms with it. Now, most people wandering in through the door with that expression would probably be taken to the back and left to sleep it off on the couch outside the back door, but this wasn’t it. There was sober resolution here, and a desire to temper the sober part somewhat.
The newcomer—I was already calling him “Tom Joad”-- made his way to the bar, eased himself to the stool, and studied, carefully, the prices in stick-on letters on the old Drewery’s sign that no one had bothered to change since about 1965.
“Good evening, sir—what would you like?” Our barkeep was invariably polite to new customers, always assuming that, eventually, she’d finally run across one who would continue to be worth being polite to.
“A small glass of the Old Style, please, ma’am,” he finally managed. As the barkeep turned to pour, he struggled out a few coins from his coinpurse, and carefully counted out four nickels onto the deep mahogany of the bar. Turning with the glass and setting it down on a beer mat, the barkeep saw the twenty cents, glanced at the man’s face, swept up the coins, smiled, and said, “Thank you, sir! Enjoy your drink.”
She’d had quite a few people pull the old “order from the old plastic menu sign” before, but never one who looked like he really meant it, I guess. Once again, I sighed to myself, I’d have to leave a bigger tip than I’d been intending.
After his first sip, he became aware of the television sitting on the high shelf near him behind the bar. As the minutes flicked by, and the map filled with reds and blues, I could see him carefully, intently, studying not only the election news, but without taking his eyes from the screen, our conversation going on around him. The one thing he wasn’t paying attention to was his beer—I could tell that what he had intended to nurse for a long time was going down without him really noticing it.
I called over the barkeep, dropped a quarter on the bar, and told her, “Another beer for the gent, on me. Keep the change.” If looks could kill—this evening was gonna cost me on the tip, for sure.
About the time she set down the fresh glass in front of Tom Joad and pointed my direction, another state went blue, another number flashed on the screen, and things got exciting for a while. Well, I don’t have to describe what went on, I don’t think—after a few rounds on the house, it’s a bit fuzzy, anyway—but we finally settled down a bit to bask in the afterglow.
Our newcomer, somewhat emboldened by the celebration, and perhaps a lot emboldened by the shots of Patrón, looked at me with wonderment. “Well, I’ll be…well, I’ll be…a colored man as President of the United States of America…well, I’ll be danged.”
Well, yes, I winced—just how far back in the woods did this guy come from? At least no N bomb, not yet. Our barkeep overheard, and, incrementally, came closer to keep an eye on things.
“Ah, yup, he’s a black man, all right,” I finally managed to croak out, then took a deep draw on the beer mug to give me a few seconds to rifle my conversational arsenal for anything else to say.
“A black man, well, well, well….Y’know, he appears a clean, well-spoken man. Real nice-lookin’ family, too, those girls…. Maybe, maybe—jist never thought to see anything like this.
“Y’know, I’d never thought much of it before recent, but I guess I didn’t think much of colored people. Now Mamma always taught me to respect everyone, even the colored race. Daddy’d never been much fer church, but Mamma’d read to us from The Good Book”--he said it just like that, The Good Book—“and what yer Momma tells you wears off on you, don’t you know, even if everybody else tells you different.
“Anyway, like I was sayin’, I expect I wasn’t no different than most people regarding the colored folks. I reckon I don’t have to tell anybody what people say and think.
“But you know, times is hard, and after I’d lost my job when the mill failed—well, I wasn’t makin’ much there, but it was something—well, I’d like to lost my mind with worry. My wife managed to take in a little laundry, but there was a lot of wives trying to do that, you know how it is. The old man gets struck out, the little woman’s the one who has to pick up the bat for the next pitch.”
Our barkeep smiled at that.
“Things was getting right tight, you know, after a couple months….I heard of a job open on a city crew, and got myself right down there, hopin’ against hope. Now I knowed two people worked for the city, and the first one got me in the door, God bless him, an old friend of my Daddy’s. Bad thing was, the foreman of the crew knew my Daddy, too, and didn’t think much of him or any of his git. Some folks don’t let nothin’ go.
“Well, to tell you, it was down to two of us—I was McGraw’s man, and that got me that far. The other fellow was a strappin’ big colored boy whose poppa had worked on Hochenreit’s poppa’s farm—that was the fellow who didn’t like my Daddy—for years, and he tried to look out for the family. Which is all well and good, but when I looked at that big black youngster, muscles bulging out all over, and—well, look at me, all I did was run a machine at the mill—pretty obvious who’d get a road job pitching gravel and breaking up stone all day, maybe even without the boy’s pull from old Hochenreit.
“We was both sittin’ in the lobby of the Courthouse, the colored kid and me, waiting to hear. We both kinda looked at each other, not too friendly, I gotta tell you. I guess he figured his chances were about what I figured mine to be. Next to none. But I confess to thinking some other thoughts about him as we sat there.
“We sat there, throwin’ glares at each other, both of us just waiting to get it over with, when in through the door comes my daughter Flora—runnin’, real upset. She’s seven—old enough to know what was goin’ on, and she knowed it wasn’t good.
“Well, she came in, runnin’ up to me, and blurts out, ‘Momma’s at Gershorn’s, and they say they can’t sell us no more food unless Momma pays three dollars at least on the bill, and Momma’s crying, and Baby Rose is cryin’ cause she’s hungry, and I’m hungry—‘
“And didn’t I feel the lowest sort of creature, seeing my beautiful daughter cryin’ her eyes out, sobbin’, not knowin’ what to do. Well, truth to tell, I was gettin’ upset myself—but at least I had an ace in the hole, at least for that day.
“’Flora,’ I said, my arms around her, getting’ her calmed down so she’d listen to me. ‘Flora, hear me now. Go tell Mamma to go home and take down your Grandmomma’s Bible—tell her to look in that story where the seven wise girls were able to keep their lamps trimmed and burnin’ all night—there’s money in there, stuck in real good so it won’t fall out, enough for some groceries. You remember now, you hear? And I’ll get this job, so we don’t have to worry no more—I’m tellin’ you that, so dry up your pretty eyes, ‘cause Daddy loves you so much—‘
“Gotta tell you, I was so glad she smiled, kissed me, and ran out to get her Momma right then, ‘cause the next thing I did was put my head in my hands and bawl like a little baby myself. Didn’t care anymore where I was, who saw me, ‘cause I felt I’d told the biggest lie I could tell to somebody who trusted me more than anything. Wasn’t gonna be all right, even if I did get the job I’d probably bust myself at the labor, then we’d be worse off than before….
“So then what happens? Strangest thing—that black boy starts to sing—not loud, but I could hear him, and he sings, ‘Keep your lamps trimmed and burnin’, keep your lamps trimmed and burnin’—‘ I put my hands down, not knowing what to think, and he stops singin’, gets up and says, ‘Mister, my Momma used to sing me that song, when she was alive—and I think now I know what it means. Mister, I’m all on my own now, and all I gots to do is keep myself alive. You gots your family and little girl to look after. You tell ole Hackenburger I done got myself a better job—never did like the way his Daddy treated my Daddy, anyways.”
“Well, I been talkin’ a spell here, ain’t I been? Make a long story short, I got the job, of course, and it’s rough, but I can do it, and food’s on the table, and things is looking up. That colored boy did get a better job, from what I heard, porter on the Pullmans. Shows that anybody can improve themselves, if they work at it. Makes me proud to live in America. And I’d best get home—quite a day, quite a day.”
Well, quite a story, and the tequila and beer fog made it a little hard to add it all up, somehow, but quite a story. Tom Joad stood up, took a long look at the Bud calendar on the wall, and turned for the door.
I don’t know what made me blurt this out, but it was election night, after all.
“Before you go, brother, did you vote today?”
He turned back, smiled, and said, “Yes, sir I voted! And from the looks of things today, let me say, I’m gol-durned proud to have voted—for Franklin Delano Roosevelt! God bless Roosevelt, God bless that fellow you voted for, and God bless the United States of America.”
You rarely see the barkeep without words—me either, for that. Finally, she reached in her apron, took out four nickels, held them up to the light, and said, “One of these is brand new—and not a one with a date after 1932.”
God Bless America. Gotta believe it.
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I awoke this morning with several disjointed thoughts I've had over the last week or two coming together in a perhaps fanciful but entertaining scenario.
Next Tuesday, Obama fulfills the best hopes of rational creatures everywhere with a solid, unarguable win in the election.
By Wednesday, God has it up to here with the wailing, lamentations and gnashing of teeth by the self-styled Christians who are convinced that an articulate, intelligent, thoughtful and caring human being elevated to the presidency must indeed be the Anti-Christ.
God mutters to Himself, "Oh, the Hell with it--if that's what they want, that's what they'll get," and Raptures every one of them to their own little soundproofed back-forty reservation in a far, far corner of Heaven where God, and the rest of us, won't have to listen to them anymore.
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"Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
Oh, how I wish he'd go away"
The little man who wasn’t there walked slowly, uncertainly through the door of the Pharmacy. The door slammed behind him, as doors always did, no matter the care he took in passing through them. He didn’t know why he bothered, not really. Not only did the door always slam, but no one ever looked sharply in his direction when it did. They’d look at the door, then look away, back to whatever it was they were doing. Never at him.
It was a strange life, not being there. He interacted with the world, no argument, if anyone were likely to argue. He had a job, did it well enough not to be noticed, not badly enough to be noticed, not good enough to be noticed. He dressed as well as one should to appear in public, wore his hair in a reasonable style, and maintained his personal hygiene in such a way that no one could sense his presence without looking at him. But, that seemed to be the problem.
He interacted with other people. It’s impossible not to. What was interesting, if anyone had noticed, was how they interacted with him. An armful of groceries would appear in front of a cashier, who would scan them, drop them into a plastic bag, and announce the total bill to an area of space about two feet in front of her. A signal appeared on her register that a debit card had been scanned, she dropped the receipt into the bag, and turned to the next pile of groceries.
The little man who wasn’t there would take the bag, bump into some harried shopper with a big butt, turquoise pants, and three kids under five years, start to mutter “Excuse me,” but she’d be pushing the cart of Diet Coke and Pampers out the door before he even finished the first word.
The drive home would always be uneventful. His car was nondescript, of a neutral color, and a make that was so common that even he couldn’t quite remember what it was. There was some advantage to not being there. No one ever parked where he parked on his block. They didn’t notice the space even when he wasn’t parked in it.
He’d been somewhere around the middle child in a large family. If there was a crack to fall through, he’d fall through it. From early on, he found ways to survive not being there. If he carried food to the table, he’d at least get the first spoonful. If he picked up dirty clothes, carried them to the washer, and turned it on, he’d get first pick of the clean clothes when he took them out of the dryer.
That didn’t help with finding a bed, getting an allowance, or help with homework. But someone who isn’t there learns to compensate.
But a man’s a man for all that, as the poet said, and the little man who wasn’t there would, from time to time, put himself into a time and place that presented a possibility, no matter how slim, of real human contact. It might not be important for people to be around him, but he still felt the need to be around other people. Television didn’t help. Those people didn’t see him, either.
Today, he was on that deserted stretch of road that always made him feel at home. No one notices corn fields, unless it’s the Fourth of July, and soybean fields are beneath notice by anyone. The abandoned VCR factory had been built in that style that invited disinterest as soon as it was built, and not a single person could remember what insurance company or what car dealership was advertised on the billboards.
But the old building with the Rx sign out front had caught his attention. On the roof was a Dr. Pepper sign
; on the side of the building were patent medicine signs
from times long gone. The curious thing, the little man who wasn’t there thought, there were only a few vehicles ever parked outside, at least when he drove by. This building had character—this building was something that people would notice—so where were the SUVs, the Escalades, the Lexuses? What he recognized was an old Ford pickup, a Dodge panel truck from the 1950’s, a rather battered Toyota Cecila convertible, at least 15 years old, and a Buick Riviera with a different color on every body panel, not counting the grey primer. There was also a VW bus out back, by the woodlotbut it looked like it had seen better times.
So—abandon routine, throw predictability to the winds, carefully engage the turn signal, and turn into the graveled parking lot.
The door slammed, as it always did. The barkeep looked over, the grubby looking fellow asleep on the table looked up, and the fellow with the sheepskin vest and bluejeans at the pinball machine jumped, and drained.
They were looking at him.
“It always does that, they’re too damn cheap to fix it,” called out the pinball player, who fished in his jeans, and dumped a few more quarters in the machine.
“Damn glad you woke me up. Barkeep! I need another!”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah—hold yer horses. Hey there! Whataya want? Name your poison!”
The little man who wasn’t there finally moved, stepped to the bar, and froze. What did he want? His tongue knotted, his brain squirmed, and a cold sweat popped from his forehead. There was no one else the barkeep could be talking to. And the barkeep was a woman. And women never noticed the man who wasn’t there.
She smiled, and in the smile was a wink, and the wink said it was okay.
“The usual, then?”
“Ah, yes ma’am, the usual—“
“Well, yes sir, the usual! ‘Yes ma’am,’ did you hear that, you all? It’s a pleasure to serve a gentleman—bloody finally, around you lot!”
The barkeep gazed at the top shelf, shook her head, fetched the three-step ladder, and reached clear back to the wall above the bar. She emerged with a bottle, a bottle that glowed in the dim light, glowed through the dust that covered the emerald green of the glass that contained the liquid within. She descended, placed the bottle on the bar, and carefully wiped it clean with her bar rag. She took a knife from her pocket, and carefully slit the lead tissue that covered the cork, carefully putting it into a small drawer under the cash register. She then searched another drawer, and found a corkscrew of ancient design, an open screw with an ivory handle.
The glass she wiped with her apron, and the fluid that filled it pulsed with a light that drew all to gaze at the scene. The little man who wasn’t there reached out, slowly, carefully, to touch the stem of the crystal, to raise it to the level of his eyes, to lower it to his nose. A deep breath, and all who watched breathed with him. He lowered the glass to his lips, allowing a small amount of the liquor to reach his tongue, and all tasted the essence. He finally swallowed from the back of the tongue, raised the glass to the barkeep, took one more taste, and lowered the glass to the bar.
“If you would, my landlady, a health to the company!” He pulled a bill from his wallet, stood, and smiling, walked to the door.
As he left, the door settled smoothly into the frame.
“’The usual’?”, said the pinball player, as the barkeep poured out shots from the ancient bottle for the company. “I’ve never seen him before.”
“Neither have I,” she said. “But I’ve the feeling we’ll be seeing him again.”
After emerging from the cave, I stopped and surveyed the countryside around me. Behind me, the back side of the cliff face thrust rapidly upwards. In front and somewhat below me, a gently rolling carpet of treetops stretched away to a line of rocky hills, too small to be even small mountains, but some miles away, enough to give the faint purple of distance to the horizon. Scattered throughout the forest were a handful of what must once have been small, stony mesas, but now were as heavily overgrown as the lower ground.
It appeared to be getting toward evening. I gave some thought to settling in for the night in the tunnel, but the thought of a leafy mattress somewhere in the woods drove me forward. The search for comfort, I’ve noticed, generally propels a person to levels of activity that gives the lie to those who would have us believe that luxury and sloth go hand in hand. I’ve nothing against sloth, of course, but I’d rather hold hands with something I’ve put a little effort into.
I carefully moved down through the stone and gravel of the debris field that dropped to the edge of the wood. As I approached the trees, mainly hardwoods, but a smattering of pines, I saw what appeared to be a pathway opening up between two large, gnarled oaks, and headed in that direction. Reaching them, I had a sense of great age, and a majesty that led me to imagine them great towers framing a massive, iron-bound gate, opening into a castle built by those who lived when the world was new. It’s moments like these that remind me that I am something more than a rough, sarcastic cog in a shallow civilization, destined for the slagheap of history. What that something more is that I feel, I’ve not the faintest, but it makes me happy when it happens. I said a little prayer of thanks to whatever gods and goddesses there may or may not be, and stepped into the chill of the forest.
It was a path. Broader and more worn than most animal trails, it also had the feel that feet something like mine had made it. I kicked it up a notch, having the idea that I should make as much time as I could before the sun set. It was dark in there as it was.
After a fair trot, I decided I wasn’t in that much of a hurry after all. In fact, I was tired, hungry, and thirsty, to the point where I was wishing I’d have hacked off a piece of ichthyosaur to go back on the cliffside. Time to take stock. I found a fallen trunk to rest my bones on, emptied out my pockets, and, not for the first time, wondered what it was about some people who traveled about totally unprepared for even the slightest problem. Like me, for instance.
A wrapped Pizza Hut peppermint—okay. As ancient as I knew it was, it didn’t last long. A pack of Camels and a cheap plastic lighter. That was good, especially the lighter. The cigs must have been at least a year old. Okay. A small brown bottle? Oh, yeah, some of what the little fellows were so inordinately fond of. Wondered how they were doing? Raising hell somewhere, I was sure. Someone else will have to tell their story.
Hmmmnnn. A compass, rosewood and copper and enamel. The one that just showed up one night. Very good. Skipped the cigs, took a swig of the little brown bottle, jumped around a while swearing and shaking, recapped it, put it back in my pocket, and headed down the path, re-energized and glad to be alive. After that drink, lucky to be alive, I’m sure, although I’m living proof that vast numbers of brain cells aren’t necessarily essential for life.
The forest felt like home to me, jackpine savage that I am, and the next hour passed quickly. The soft green quiet was welcome after the rush of the last day or two—how long had it been, anyway? Hard to tell, so not to worry. A few evening birdsongs played through the trees, but the quiet wasn’t disturbed. Not at all.
And the compass. I had some doubts that a compass would be effective here, wherever here was, but the compass did function, in it’s way. When at rest, the needle pointed in a consistent direction, but not north by the sun as I could see. As I walked, the needle pointed straight ahead, turning as I turned, as if motioning me forward. That seemed to be the best indication I had that I was actually going somewhere. If you can’t trust rosewood and copper, what can you trust?
By now, the dusk was a palpable thing, thickening before me into night. It was time to burrow into the undergrowth while I still could make out twilit shapes. I stopped to judge the surroundings, looking, listening, feeling the dark. Then, down, down the trail, I saw a spark of light, then not, then back again, blocked and flashed by leaves and the evening breeze, perhaps. I set off again.
Within a couple of hundred yards, the spark had resolved itself into several small lights, and I could hear, at least sense, movement and life. Around a corner, and I could see a small clearing, on one side a mound of brush which soon revealed itself as a snugly built cabin, on the other side a scattering of lean-tos, shelters, and a tent. The cabin was open in the front, with a counter behind several wooden stools under an awning, the light of a fire glowing out from inside. Four or five figures sat on the stools, lounged in front of the lean-tos, or moved between them, lit by flickering light from the several lanterns mounted on top of poles that brightened the clearing.
As I approached, a couple of the folks raised their arms in what I had to assume was welcome. Since none of them appeared to be making any rude comments about my bizarre appearance, I decided to return the favor. Civility is the traveler’s best friend, after all, and this looked to be a rather comfortable waystation. Especially when I smelled the fragrance of good old home cooking wafting from the cabin front. I’d mentioned I was hungry, right?
Hungry enough that I skipped over any close examination of my new friends. Two were rather tall and gangly, like Abe Lincoln on steroids, all skinny and big at the same time, dressed in loose shirts over something like lederhosen. The others were just downright strange. All had the requisite number of eyes and such, in fairly familiar places, so, hey, I was cool with it. No worse than the lot on the last day of a three-day Phish run, anyway. They smiled, I smiled, they smiled some more. The strange fellow sitting on the stool stood up, returned an empty bowl to the counter, then motioned that I was welcome to his seat. I said “Thanks!,” he said something friendly, and I stepped to the counter.
The mistress of the establishment had one of those dried-apple faces you see on craft-fair dolls of little old ladies in gingham dresses, with bright, black eyes, and a fall of silver hair flowing over her slight shoulders. When I say silver, I mean it—not white, but a gleaming silver—still, I could tell it was the silver of age, hard won. She was simply dressed, with a spotless white apron, graced by several intricately carved wooden bracelets, polished to a finish that almost glowed in the lamplight. When I asked, and mimed, for a bowl of whatever was in the cookpot, she gave me the universal look of the innkeeper—let me see your coin, mister. I was sure that somewhere on the shelves and cabinets I could see on her walls was a plaque that read “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.”
I dumped out a small handful of loose change on the counter, mindful that I had seen no Visa/Mastercard sticker anywhere around the building. She shuffled them around a bit, picked up one or two coins, looked at them, then shoved them back in my direction.
I tried a five I had in my wallet. She did show some interest in the bill, peered at the portrait a bit, looked out at the tall fellows, shook her head, and handed it back. I really didn’t know what to make of that, but I do know “no” when I see it. The compass I wasn’t going to trade, or the lighter, unless desperate, and the Camels were so old I couldn’t even try to fob those off on her. I dumped the contents of my wallet, trying to find something that might be of interest.
Suddenly, her bright eyes widened, and she pointed a long, brown finger at what proved to be my lucky Ron Cey baseball card. Why a lucky Cubs card? Screw the Sox, and please don’t ask me again, okay? Well, hell, we all have our price, and if my lucky Ron Cey was hers, so be it. Maybe this was the place die-hard Cubs fans go after they Climb that Outfield Ivy in the Sky.
I shoved it toward her, she showed me a beautiful expanse of perfect, nut-brown teeth framed by a smile to die for, swept Ron into an apron pocket, and hustled around the little kitchen. Before I knew it, I had a steaming bowl of soup in a bountiful wooden bowl, a huge wooden spoon floating on top, and a super-sized mug of something golden drawn from the tap of a neat little barrel resting on a sort of a sawhorse.
I sat on the empty stool, started tucking away at the soup, with noodles, vegetables, mushrooms, and what I couldn’t say, but perhaps a hint of tarragon, maybe this was a garlic overtone—oh, who cares, it was good. A loaf of heavy black bread had materialized while I was face down in the bowl, and the nutty, chewy richness of it complemented the soup to perfection. After the bite of bread, the cup—a rich, honeyed wine that was perhaps peaches, perhaps cinnamon undertones, certainly wrapping my tongue, and my mind, in a soft blanket of smoothness.
After I cleaned my bowl, drained my mug, and returned them to the counter, my hostess led me to a lean-to at the edge of the clearing, away from the already snoring tall guys, with a soft and fragrant mattress of moss and pine needles. All the others had turned in as well, and she softly moved to each torch, capping them until the only light came from her little cabin. She pulled down the awning, blew out the candles within, and left me to the peace of a clear, starry sky.
Is that a comet there, that tailed blur against the night, pointing to the universe beyond, and the universe beyond that? Perhaps, I smiled, perhaps…I dreamt I caught it’s tail….
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Dreams, like clouds,
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visions, like vapor,
on the jetstream of mind.
They break, sweep, disheveled
on the mountains of consciousness,
stream trails though the sunrise,
and the rain comes,
and the fog,
to wet the roots,
explode the seed,
to lift another life
to search the face of the laughing sun.
Disturbing dreams this morning. Sitting in a bar, discussing and deciding which show to go to, a Dylan concert, someone else.
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A woman comes into the bar, through the righthand door. She carries a chrome-plated pump shotgun.
Watch transfixed by the gleaming silver as she pumps, takes aim, and blows the brains out of a person leaving through the lefthand door.
All is empty for a moment--no sight, no sound--then coming to awareness, shock, myself and others.
Later, in an apartment of a family of color. Two redneck types have invaded the space, and are shot by the man. As they die, the figures turn ashy-white, their bodies twisting and squirming as they fall back out of existence. Creatures of evil, in reality, not men.
I wake, in the apartment hallway, to a noise, switch the light and shout "Hah!" A fleeting glimpse of a figure who reminds me of Peter Graves in an old Mission Impossible, who also says "Hah!"
We were apparently both ready for each other.
Awake for the morning by then.
The mood of those dreams refused to be washed away by coffee, so I tried Coltrane, "A Love Supreme." Perhaps I was too distracted, perhaps there's more disruption to smooth over than I first realized.
Follwed with George Harrison 33 & 1/3. George pushes me over the top every time. Then, and now as I type, American Beauty, and burning sage, to complete the healing.
A frightening thing--I rarely feel the need of ritual. Very thankful to What Is for being here when necessary--
The Capt'n was running late, primping, getting his costume just so. The crew of the Golden Willow Tree were already into the rum (no grog tonight, no sir!), bobbing for apples, telling ghost stories, and generally setting in for a fine Samhain eve's cavort.
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When, with a flourish of the bosun's whistle, the Capt'n made his grand appearance, the assembled company fell silent in great amaze. Their Capt'n was a shimmering vision, in a powder-blue ball gown, matching pumps, an elaborate contruction of blonde hair topped by a sparkling diamond tiara, with sequins everywhere--even in his long black beard!
The Capt'n seemed equally dumbstuck for a moment, then roared, "Ye scurvy rat bastards, did I not say this here is to be a bloody COSTUME PARTY?! Did I not! Aye, more than a few of ye will regret the very day your curs of mothers whelped your sorry bones! Not a costume among ye!" One sailor, brave with rum, and more quick-witted than the rest, stepped forward.
"Why Capt'n, beggin' yar pardons, we most certainly is dressed up in costumes! Yar see, we is all tricked out as sailors!"
"Aye, and there's the truth of it for sure!" the good Capt'n roared. "Ye must be costumed as sailors, acause I spy not a real sailor in this entire sorry ship filled with the most scrofulous of incompetent landlubbers!"
The entire crew stood frozen to the gently rolling deck.
"As I said, maties, damned fine costumes! Where's me rum, and be quick about it!"
The jigs and reels they danced continued into morning, more than one celebrant had to be saved from drowning in the apple barrels, and the food fight that developed when the first orange-frosted cupcake was hurled was a thing of legend.
Just saw the webcast of the Rhythm Devils at Vegoose--amazing. Really bummed I missed them in Chicago. Billy and Mickey--enough said. Gordon is great, Kimock -- well -- I'm convinced. Sikiru I'd love to see more of, and Jen is just nailing the vocals. If Pigpen could come back as a lady, it'd be her!
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Well, as I said, it was just my luck. The little fellows were funneling gunpowder into tubes with a motion that recalled a Cossack dancing the Tarantella, then tossing the cylinders to their mates, who applied fuses and sticks in a fashion that could have been choreographed by Busby Berkeley on acid.
Since I was on acid, this didn’t seem to be too much of a stretch.
The one disconcerting aspect of the performance was their habit of puffing out great clouds of smoke from their Cuban cigars, the ends glowing cherry-red, as they weighed and divided, measured and poured, gunpowder, nitroglycerin and, on special occasions, plastique—
What, me worry? Not really. In fact, the nine little fellows (or was it ten? I couldn't tell, since they jumped about so) also had a habit of not knocking the glowing end off of their stogies, which could lead to both amusement and the imminent demise of all intelligent life within one hundred meters of their car.
Luckily, this time, the glowing cigar ends, when they dropped, were caught in what the little fellows described as their beards (as they referred to the complexes that hung beneath what may be described as their chins), which led to wild excitement, fevered waltzes, and profane exclamations, and a fine tableaux to the disinterested observer.
Eventually, the work order was consulted, the number of finished Bangalore torpedoes was calculated, and the shift was called to an end. This led to the traditional day-end celebration, which consisted of copious consumption of intoxicants, many bawdy stories, and the occasional friendly fistfight.
At that point, I realized that I had many miles to go before I did much of any damn thing that I could tell about in Sunday School. I could feel
Satchmo bubbling up through the floor, and when I looked out the window, things really started bubbling. I piled a few bags of guncotton together, lopped off a few inches of fuzee for a good smoke, recovered one of the bottles that one of the little fellows had abandoned when they crashed to the floor, and settled in to watch the 2001 effects as they flashed by.
When the silver ball smashed out every window of the left side of the train—well, that was hours later, but it certainly caught my attention--
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I saw the coolest political poster the other day:
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I want to find out who's behind this--somebody
on the right in Indiana is growing brains--
The death of four Amish children in Pennsylvania at the hands of a deranged gunman has hit me hard.
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The Amish are first cousins to my ethno-religious tribe. A friend of mine told me that his granddad always used to say, "Scratch a Troyer and you'll find an Amishman." Coming from a Yoder, this was pretty rich humor.
The Amish are not perfect. But no one with any knowledge of them could even begin to understand why a horror such as this should have affected "die Stille im Lande"--the peaceful of the country.
The response of the community, though, is as typical of the Amish as it is almost incomprehensible to outsiders.
From an LA Times online article:
But Roberts' brutality evoked very little anger among the community Monday. Men in broad-brimmed hats and suspenders and women in bonnets and long dark dresses expressed grief and shock, but in hushed, muted tones. "It's a sad day," Jacob King, a 31-year-old stonemason said. He could think of nothing else to add, just repeated that one word, "sad."
Rather than dwell on the victims -- though this is a close-knit community, where few are strangers -- Amish residents spoke of their concern for Roberts' family; their sorrow that a man could become so unhinged, so alienated from the Lord.
"I wish someone could have helped him out, poor soul. It's obvious that something was troubling him," said Steve, a 54-year-old carpenter who, like many here, would not give his full name.
Of the tragedy, he would say only that it was "uncalled for," and unexpected.
An Amish woman who gave her name as Irene also expressed compassion for the gunman. "I am very thankful," she said, "that I was raised to believe you don't fight back. You should forgive."
"I wish someone could have helped him out, poor soul..." "You should forgive..."
God grant me the strength to believe that if such a thing should happen to me....
Roundabout Corners on a Switchback Trail
There’s three that turn the wheel around,
there’s four that make it spin,
but none there are in Tomcat Town
can tell you where it’s been.
The trail heats up, the trail cools down,
the trail goes cold at night,
but one there is who goes to ground
and waits on morning’s light.
She rises with the rising dew,
she looks askance at luck:
her best friend’s an entrenching tool,
her mate a pickup truck.
She drives the knife-edge mountain ridge
and slides through dire swamps,
takes two lanes on a one-lane bridge,
hit’s trees and leaves ‘em stumps.
She’s on the lookout for that wheel.
just missed it once or twice,
once from a wayward barroom deal,
and once from loaded dice.
She finally learned her lesson well,
And’s taught it once or twice:
A secret’s ought you never tell,
It’s all you get in life.
She tracks that wheel with all her might,
she tracks with all her main
that wheel that spins from dawn to night
through fields and streams and drains.
It bounces on the mountain peaks,
it spews mud from the bogs,
she grinds her teeth to hear it speak
like screams of devil dogs.
The truck she screams out in reply,
it’s gearbox shakes and strains—
she stomps the gas, she rips and flies
‘cross sunshine and the rain.
The hula dancer on the dash,
she always points the way
when sandstorms whip and lightning lash
and wipes the sun away.
And will she catch it? I don’t know—
it matters not to her.
Her secret’s in the rain and snow,
If you can make ‘em share.
There’s three to cross the center line,
there’s four tipped in the ditch,
there’s one that drives through Hell to find
that circular sonofabitch--
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I’ve not, much to my misfortune at times, and at others a salvation, since a wee lad, been a man of few words. The precision that I sometimes would feel lacking in a simple, single word, could, no doubt, be caught in a scattershot of finely turned phrases, as shot from the blunderbuss of my speechifying. However, that night aboard ship, when my sensickal nature all but forsook it’s lodgings within my mind, I’ve struggled, as did Herakles in the Stables, against the muck and dreck that our poor tongues, in their ignorance, call language, to describe the events, and the nature of the events, that took place that night.
‘Tis useless to struggle more; what it was, it was, and what I can tell, will be what I can tell. The phenomenological occurrences, I have come to understand, occurred in truth, as much as they are outside all experience, and they occurred, both in the Temporal and Spatial Realms inhabited by us all, and in the vast Cathedral of my reckoning and imaginations. Such a notion of truth did my Dearest Ma do her loving best to instill in me with her tales of the Biblical Personages, I now see, but they took only an incomplete hold upon me until this moment past. I now know that there is a Truth within, and a Truth without, and the fit purpose of a man in this earth is to unite the two within his own Holy Being. Nay, not to worry, friend—I’ve turned neither prattling priest nor Methodist preacher, nor the pompoustuous inflated pig’s-bladder of a philosopher in a lecturn-hall—Truth is what it will, and cannot be taught as an arithmetickal table of adds and subtracts.
Well, the tale grows cold in the telling, does it not? Old habits die hard, especially the bad’uns, as young habits of the goodly sort so easy die a-borning.
The woodgrain of the counter whereupon I sat soon shifted, and moved, and drew itself into pictures more fine than in a parson’s chapbook, revealing sights and wonders, of which I recall—Nothing. But Something did I see, and those things have shown me the very tracks on which the World runs.
No—it cannot be done. I cannot use Mere Letters, but must needs have an Alphabet writ large across the night sky, where the stars represent the sounds and vibrations of my very Thoughts—and not only thought, but what lies behind thought—and I must use the spaces behind those stars, as well, for the syllables that I yet do not know, and the puncktuations, and rhymes, and rhythms of how we say what we say.
No. The presentation of a few incidents will needs suffice, as isolated as they are, and lacking a proper cohesion, or commonality, to bind them….
A Scattering of Incidents
Ah, yes…a drop of nut-brown ale may alert the mind wonderfully…
I recall my young friend, the galley-mistress, draping a warm blanket over my shoulders as I listened carefully to the moon-flecked waves, she calling me back for a moment by her touch, before I dove again into the sound of sounds…
I recall my bunkmate squatting next to me for a time. He turned the empty cowling of his hooded form towards me, and although I saw Nothing, could see his face, and the lines of character inscribed upon it, like some ancient labyrinth of cut stone. He then reached his gloved and gaunt hand into the cavity of his hood, and plucked forth a Crystal, doublely-terminated, and pressed it into my numb hand. I opened my fingers, and saw a glow within, a light-beam that fair tickled the backs of my eyes. As sensations more rare and wonderful than the last pulsed into the opened hatchways of my Being, he spoke to me, saying, “Now ye’ve three good eyes, me lad! Take care that ye sees through at least one of ‘em!”
I recall the school, or pod, of whale fish that caught my attention as they lept and danced and frolicked in the highroad of lunar light cast forth from a moon that must have been our own moon, though I’d never seen it’s like before. Two of the delphinidea moved themselves closer, and seemed as to be desirous of my attentions. I gazed intent as they came to the side of the ship, and paced it through the now mirrorbright and mirrorsmooth seas. I knew then, though not by eyes alone, that one bore the countenance of Our Lord, and the other, the visage of His beloved disciple, Mary, the Magdalene.
Please forgive me here for what some may call impiety, or blasphemous utterance—but I am both a sailor, to whom those sins are forgiven, and not only that, but a soul who know knows the Divinity that dwells in the lowliest of God’s creation, of which I know myself to be both the lowest and the grandest—
The One whom I kenned as Our Lord raised his smooth, glistening head, and spoke to me thus, “Hear this well, and remember these words—“
But then His companion interrupted, and interjected, “So long, and thanks for all the fish!”
The both of them then threw back their heads, as much as one could imagine such a creature doing, and clattered and clicked in deep laughter. I sat in deep amaze, unable to credit such, for I did not recall from me Ma’s tales that Moses had relayed such merriment from his burning bush, but ‘twas there without regard for propriety, and if “Our Saviour Christ and His Lady”, as the song styles them, should act such, so be it, now until the end of the age.
When His wits were about him again, He looked deep at me, and spake, saying, “Return, and we return: keep faith, and so will we: Or, if thou wilt, forsake, and we'll do like to thee!”
“The Covenant, “ I whispered, though I know not where or whence
these words came to my lips…
The last I recall, I was being helped to my bunk by our good “cabin-boy,” who had found me all agog, and half frozen, blanket piled forgotten behind me, in the early hours of the middle watch. Bill-a-Roe maneuvered me back to our cramped quarters, which to me seemed as large and as fine as an empty churchhouse, and pulling a glowing bottle of dark liquor from out her seabag, she uncorked it and held it to my lips. I let the sweet wine run down the cavern of my dry throat in a single draught. Peering at the near-empty bottle, her eyes wide, she muttered, “All that bourbon, in one gulp?!” As she settled me into my berth and pulled the worn sheet up around my chin, she stopped, smiled, and said, with an aire of tenderness, “My boy, I know for a fact that you inhaled…”
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"Ooh! Look over 'ere, God! On this planet! Look at 'im! Isn't he beautiful! Crikey! and over 'ere! How'd you think up this feller, God? 'E's a beauty...!"
I'd settled in for a relaxed afternoon at the Pharmacy, playing pinball, drinking raspberry iced tea, and generally being as much of a wastrel as one can be without actually intending to get in trouble. Halfway through the last refill ("The second cup of coffee's free, but the first one, you got to pay"), the back of my teeth got that tighten-up feeling, but I put that down to the Archie Bell and the Drells tune on the jukebox--
But when my stomach started to contract to about the size of a cinnamon jawbreaker, and I could start to feel the bumpers with my fingertips, I turned to the Staff on Duty to see wtf she'd done to my iced tea. Aha! Nowhere to be found--That's the last time I trust the strangest people on Earth, I thought, with an astounding lack of originality, but hey, when you find something good, use it 'til it runs out.
I settled in to the game, a heck of a nice old Bally machine, great flipper action, responsive to the slightest English, and a nearly-naked blonde to boot, with warrior and dragon for good measure. One of the good old simple games--get the ball up top, let it bounce around and rack up the points.
This plan worked for a while.
Right about the time "Amarillo" came on the jukebox--
"Oh Amarillo what`d you want my baby for
Oh Amarillo now he won`t come home no more
You done played a trick on me
Hooked him in the first degree
While he put another quarter
Push Dolly and then Porter
While he racks up fifty thousand on the pinball machine"
--with Emmylou Harris sounding like God's own choir of angels kickin' it out in God's own honkytonk, the quantum effects started to be a bit distracting, but so worthy of attention that I didn't suffer from the bain of pinballers, premature drain. That silver ball was in the process of dissolving into a linear cloud of possibilities, each new potential future banging up extra points, each "thunk" of the extra game sounding out like the Big Bang itself, creating universes....
...and, I finally noticed, a crowd of folks gathered round the game of the century. Well, quit when you're on top--that, and the live version of "A Love Supreme" came from the jukebox, casting any other sensation to the outer darkness.
I deftly handed off the game to the nearest onlooker, who overcome with her luck, promptly drained.
A counterpoint to Coltrane eventually made itself known. A collection of whaps, thrumps, shrieks and reverberations were issuing from under the closed door of the back room, along with a certain amount of colorful sparks and entertaining fogs.
That thing that sits inside my mind and watches me tapped me on the shoulder about then. When things are a given, it's hard to know why, but I knew then that things along a number of the timelines were about to get very strange indeed. What the hell--may as well go see what's happening. Better hurry--this ain't no bus, and the take-off and arrivals depend on more than clocks.
I stood, strode (with what seemed to be twenty-league boots), to the door of the back room, screamed "Save me a goddam seat!", and leapt on the closest car pulling away from the station--rather wishing that I hadn't picked the car with the little fellows and the Bangalore torpedoes--but such is life, eh?
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