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The Twice Fought War: Ethiopia 1935-1945

by Paul Garson

All photos and documents from author’s collection

 

Ethiopia Map 1935

In the early 1930s Italian Colonial aspirations included much of The Horn of Africa including Libya, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

 

Once upon a time there was a country, sometimes known (in Europe) as Abyssinia, other times as Ethiopia. Or, if you were Italian and drawing maps of the continent of Africa for future conquests … Etiopia. In addition Ethiopia was a predominantly ancient Christian country tracing that history back to the first century A.D. In 330 A.D. Christianity was declared the state religion and eventually the only region of Africa to survive as such following the expansion of Islam in the area. Some even claimed it was the secret hiding place of the Ark of the Covenant.

 

mounted  warrior 1898

1890 Illustration – Mounted Ethiopian Warrior
The image appeared on an Italian pharmaceutical company’s advertising card printed in the 1930s. Although he still carries a shield, the soldier also shoulders a modern military rifle rather than the vintage flintlocks relied upon by the majority of his countrymen.

In 1906, the same year that Einstein set forth his Theory of Relatively that changed the face of science and the Great San Francisco earthquake changed the face that city, Ethiopia was granted its internationally recognized independence with Great Britain, France and Italy among those signing the historic document.  But within five years Italy would invade nearby Libya and begin carving out chunks of northern Africa for its colonies.  As the European powers began devouring African resources, Ethiopia still managed to survive intact, and furthermore, in 1923 was recognized by the League of Nations (the precursor to the United Nations) as a full-fledged member of that international community.

 

ethiopia Sellasie coin 1937

1937 – Coinage and Carnage
Along with the image of Emperor Selassie, his name appears in the abugida script form of Amharic, the country’s national language, and the second most-spoken Semitic language worldwide after Arabic.

* * *

While it went through a period of various potentates as rulers, a new leader appeared that would put Ethiopia firmly back on the world map. The face of Emperor Haile Selassie appeared on the November 3rd, 1930 cover of TIME Magazine. His titles included “King of Kings, Conquering Lion of Judah and Elect of God.” The text of the story stated, “Certainly the new Emperor is the greatest Abyssinian ruler of modern times.” That bit of hyperbole proved prophetic. TIME again placed him on its cover on January 6, 1936 selecting him as “Man of the Year for 1935” for his courageous efforts defending his country from the invasions launched by Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

 

ethiopia 225th departs for Ethiopia 1935

Banner of War
Standing by their battle flag, officers of the 225th Infantry Regiment of the 14th Italian Expeditionary Force prepare to depart for East Africa in 1935.

* * *

The Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935, lasting 17 months, would presage the European war that would erupt in 1939, and as such could be seen as one of the sparks that ignited that conflagration.

Since Mussolini dreamed of recreating the glory of the Roman Empire, he needed colonies to expand fascist Italy along with his own ego, thus Ethiopia became his target. The rest of Europe shrugged their shoulders for the most part. The attitude is summed up by the following quote from discussions at the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs on October 3, 1935, the eve of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia.  “One can see now how thoughtless it was of the League of Nations to admit Ethiopia, a country which does not deserve other nations risking a war to protect it.”

As the war ground on, the modern Italian forces found themselves generally victorious, but on December 22, 1935, after Ethiopian troops managed to repulse an Italian attack, General Rodolfo Graziani launched airborne gas warfare including bombings on January 10 that killed thousands of Ethiopians trying to escape Italian advances, more gas attacks following in March. An estimated 300-500 tons of mustard gas were deployed, personally authorized by Mussolini along with the use of flamethrowers.

 

son and father warriors 1935 Harar

October 1935 – Mobilization in Harar, Ethiopia
Responding to Emperor Haile Selassie’s call for the defense of their country, an Ethiopian warrior and his young son prepar to leave for war, the boy acting as his father’s “squire” and carrying his rifle and gear. Like most of the soldiers facing the Italians, both go barefoot into battle.

* * *

On May 5, Italian General Badoglio and his troops triumphantly entered the capital of Addis Ababa. Eventually some 150,000 Italians would occupy Ethiopia, but the occupiers found themselves tasked with controlling over 1,000,000 sq. kilometers of some of the harshest topography in the world and home to some of the most tenacious and courageous peoples, many of whom joined in a protracted guerilla war.

Initially official international response was minimal. The only country to protest the Italian aggression and occupation was Mexico. A year later, five other countries…China, New Zealand, the Republic of Spain (fighting its own civil war against Fascism), the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were the only nations not to recognize Italy’ right of control over Ethiopia. However by 1940 only Stalin’s Russia recognized Selassie as the rightful leader, since at the time and prior to the isolationist leaning U.S. entry into WWII, America was considering acknowledging Ethiopia as part of the Italian empire.

 

ethiopia officer telegraph 1935

Ethiopian Royal Guard Soldier
Still bearing the original tag affixed to an album photo in 1935,  an officer of the Telegraph Corp is shown in his dress uniform complete with lion fur fringed epaulets and cap. Unfortunately the country’s communication system was such that the military had in most part to rely on runners and there was but one field telephone in service.

* * *

On June 30, 1936, after Italian forces occupied Addis Ababa forcing him into exile, Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie made a personal and electrifying appeal to the League of Nations which had convened in Geneva, Switzerland. His speech, warning of the threat of Fascism, was heckled by the Italian representatives, but brought him into the world spotlight as a champion of his people and an inspirational call to defend the weak against the violently strong. His statements included the following prophetic warning:

“If a strong government finds it can destroy a weak people, then the hour has struck for that weak people to appeal to the League of Nations to give judgment in all freedom. God and history will remember your judgment. It is us today. It will be you tomorrow.”

His words went unheeded, the League taking no action. On February 19-21, 1937 Addis Ababa was the scene of a bloody massacre of some 10,000 civilians including half the younger, educated population, shot, beheaded, and bayonetted by Italian troops with the pretext being an attempted and failed assassination attempt against Marshal Rodolfo Graziani the Viceroy and Governor General of Italian East Africa. It was one of the largest mass murders prior to the start of WWII.

 

ethiopia hanging

Souvenir Photo
An Italian soldier snapped this image of blindfolded Ethiopians as well as his pith helmet wearing comrades during one of countless public executions.

* * *

The Italians also operated notorious prisons, including Nokra located on an island on the Red Sea where prisoners suffered a mortality rate of 58%. The general Fascist attitude toward their colonial subjects was summed up by Gen. Badoglio when he stated, “the whole population of Cyrenaica should perish.”

In another instance, the Italian commander Graziani, employing Somali and Libyan mercenaries along with his Italian troops, successfully launched the decisive battle against the Ethiopian resistance on the Southern Front in mid-April 1936. His summary report of the victory indicated some 650 Italian casualties while the numbers exceeded several thousand Ethiopians. He commented, “Few prisoners as is the custom of Libyan troops.” While under Italian command who voiced no disapproval, the Libyans implemented their own “total war.”

Conquering Italian Troops 1937

axis Mussolini oct 1943

1937 Photo -Conquering Italian troops in High Spirits

Eventually an estimated 500,000 Ethiopians died as the result of Italy’s invasion and occupation, a genocidal policy that history relegated to its dusty back pages.

Italy would continue to control Ethiopia while the world lurched toward WWII. Then on June 10, 1940 Mussolini decided to enter the World War on Hitler’s side in order to share in the spoils. His forces attacked France via the western Alps, but suffered from poor leadership and freezing temperatures, obsolete weapons, without even adequate cooking pots or winter clothing. In the ensuing border area battles, the French sustained 40 killed, 84 wounded, 150 missing. The Italians lost 631 killed, 2,361 wounded and 600 missing not to mention some 2000 cases of frostbite. Later in Greece, Italian forces were driven back again, in this case losing some 14,000 dead and 25,000 missing. Hitler was called upon  to rescue his Italian allies by sending in his own troops and as a result did not meet his original schedule for attacking the Soviet Union, losing precious time, and perhaps the war in Russia and the War itself.

 

ethiopia Selassie man Oerlikon 1935

Attack on Dessie – Emperor Selassie Fights Back
The photo shows the Emperor at the controls of a Swedish made Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun. While the scene appears posed, it recreates an actual event. After learning that Selassie would be inside the vacated Italian consulate building, the Italians dropped bombs on the city, causing moderate damage and creating panic in the civilian population who had never experience aerial bombardment. The Emperor went unscathed while the bombing of civilians brought international attention.

* * *

In late January 1941, British and its Commonwealth troops (Indian, Nigerian, Ghanaian, South African, East African), launched attacks from bases in Sudan and Kenya against Italian-occupied Eritrea and Somaliland. By mid-February, 1941, Italian troops in Eritrea had sought sanctuary in the rugged mountains, for the most leaving their outposts in the hands of the Allies. By late March, German and Italian forces were evacuating by ship from Eritrea as British forces continued their successful operations against them. In one of the large engagements fought at the Battle of Keren involving tanks and infantry, the British recorded 536 killed, 3229 wounded while Italian casualties totalled some 6500.

On April 1, the Eritrean capital city of Asmara surrendered as an open city, the Allies collecting 5,000 Italian prisoners, the remaining forces making an effort to escape back into Ethiopia. By April 4th, Italian troops had fled the capital of Addis Ababa under threat of imminent capture by British forces who shortly took the city without opposition. On May 5, Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie made an historic return to the capital, marking to the day that he had been forced to flee Italian forces five years previously.

By May 16, Amba Alagi, the last major Italian stronghold in Ethiopia, lacking drinking water and counting nearly 290,000 casualties, began surrender negotiations. On May 17, 1941, Duke Aosta, the Viceroy of Italian East Africa, surrendered to the British followed on November 27 by the surrender of General Nasi, thus effectively ending Italian control of the area although some Italian guerrilla resistance continued until Italy surrendered in 1943, thus officially ending the Italian occupation of Ethiopia. It was Gen. Badoglio, the conqueror of the Ethiopians, who replaced Mussolini as Prime Minister after the dictator’s fall from power. Badoglio then surrendered Italy to the Allies.

Italian forces in East Africa would be captured en mass by Allied forces and during fighting on the Eastern Front alongside their German allies 87, 795 Italian personnel were killed or MIA, another 35,000 wounded. Over the ensuing decades, Italy was only able to repatriate the remains of 10,542 of its soldiers from the Russian Front, and of those only 2,799 were identified.

 

victory celebration

Selassie portrait

Victory Celebration
A rare private snapshot shows Emperor Haile Selassie standing on the main street of Addis Ababa on May 5, 1941, the day of his return to the liberated capital. The roadway is lined with smiling troops while two young riflemen aim for the cameraman. Today, May 5 is still celebrated as “Ethiopian Patriots’ Victory Day.”

temporary comrades

Temporary Comrades-in-Arms
The body language of an Italian Alpini trooper and a German Army corporal standing at their guard post could be interpreted as reflecting the differences between their individual and national personalities.

* * *

After the overthrow of Mussolini and as a result of the Armistice of Cassibile on September 8, 1943, Italy was split between the pro-fascist forces allied with Nazi Germany and anti-Fascist forces with Allied allegiances. The Germans exacted brutal reprisals against the Italians they saw as traitors, executing thousands and sending thousands more into slave labor.
Italy paid the price in blood, nearly a quarter million of its military killed and another 150,000 civilians perishing, a significant percentage caused by its former German ally.

1948: Aftermath
War crimes charges against Fascist Italy, while assaulting pre-WWII Ethiopia and during the war in Greece and Yugoslavia, were never officially recognized or prosecuted as the both the post-war Italian government and the Allies preferred to ignore them—in fact, actively denying and covering them up since they were now more concerned with the threat of the Communist Party in Italy. However, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, late Italian ruler of Ethiopia, was sentenced in 1948 to 19 years in prison for his collaboration with the Nazi Party. Although he only served four months. (He later became active in a neo-fascist party, dying of natural causes in 1955 at age 72. Public money funded a monument to him in 2012.)

 

 

BIO

Paul Garson SelfiePaul Garson lives and writes in Los Angeles, his articles regularly appearing in a variety of national and international periodicals. A graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and USC Media Program, he has taught university composition and writing courses and served as staff Editor at several motorsport consumer magazines as well as penned two produced screenplays. Many of his features include his own photography, while his current book publications relate to his “photo-archeological” efforts relating to the history of WWII in Europe, through rare original photos collected from more than 20 countries. Links to the books can be found on Amazon.com. More info at www.paulgarsonproductions.com or via paulgarson@aol.com

 

 

Cliff May House

Designer of the Dream:
Cliff May and the California Ranch House

by Mary A. van Balgooy

 Cliff May

In 1934, Architectural Digest published another edition presenting beautiful black-and-white photographs of elegant houses and imposing buildings by prominent southern California architects. This particular issue included works by Gordon B. Kaufmann, designer of buildings such as the Athenaeum at the California Institute of Technology (1930), Denison Library at Scripps College (1930), and the Times Mirror Building in Los Angeles (1931-1935); George Washington Smith, renowned for his Spanish colonial revival style homes in and around Santa Barbara, Bel Air and Pasadena; and Wallace Neff, noted for his Spanish colonial revival houses in Bel Air and the Pasadena area.1 In addition to these well-known architects, the magazine also featured a house designed by Cliff May, who had no architectural training and little building experience. Moreover, the home included in this publication was only the second house May had designed and built. But it would mark the beginning of a long and prolific architectural career for May. When he died in 1989 at the age of eighty-one, he had designed numerous commercial buildings, over one thousand custom homes, and several tract house plans resulting in more than eighteen thousand tract houses.2 But out of all of his work, this southern California native is best known and remembered for developing the suburban dream home of the 1940s and 1950s—the California ranch house.

Cliff May Sunset office

Cliff May’s family background and childhood greatly influenced his work. Born to Beatrice Magee and Charles Clifford May in 1908 in San Diego, May was a sixth-generation Californian through his mother, a descendent of the distinguished Estudillo and de Pedrorena families of San Diego. Both families not only had served in a number of important military, political, economic, and social positions under Spanish, Mexican, and American rule, but also had owned several large ranchos in present-day San Diego and Riverside counties. In addition, they had owned land in Old Town San Diego and it is here that they had built their main residences: Casa de Estudillo and Casa de Pedrorena. Built after 1845, Casa de Pedrorena was one of the first frame houses in Old Town. Casa de Estudillo, on the other hand, was constructed almost twenty years earlier as a one-story, U-shaped adobe house that was common in southern California throughout most of the nineteenth century. By the twentieth century both families’ vast ranchos had disappeared and only their town houses had survived.3 Furthermore, the Estudillo House was restored as a museum in 1910 and publicized as “Ramona’s Marriage Place,” becoming part of the growing movement to preserve the romance of California’s rancho days.4 Thus, as the young May grew up in San Diego he could easily visit the former houses of his California ancestors.

May became familiar with two other nineteenth-century ranch houses during his youth, too. His aunt, Jane Magee, operated a lima bean farm on Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores in Oceanside. Once belonging to Pío Pico and his brother, Andrés, the rancho included two houses by the time the Magee family leased the property in the 1880s: the Rancho Santa Margarita and Las Flores Adobe. Rancho Santa Margarita, built in succession over time in the nineteenth century, is a traditional U-shaped adobe house while the Las Flores Adobe, built after 1865, is in the Monterey style. It was on this farm that May spent many summers with his aunt living in the Las Flores Adobe and next to the Rancho Santa Margarita.5 As seen in May’s writings and designs, these two ranch houses in addition to the Estudillo House would profoundly shape his ideas on the ranch house of the twentieth century.

Cliff May sign

Even though May excelled in music as a pianist and saxophonist, he followed his father’s wishes and in 1929 enrolled at San Diego State College as a business major. However, he left college after two years primarily because of the economic realities of the Great Depression and “to be on his own.”6 To support himself, May began to design and build furniture, a trade he learned as a young man from his parents’ neighbors, the Styris family, who were professional furniture makers.7

May designed his furniture in the latest style of the 1920s: Monterey. Monterey was originally created by Frank Mason and his son George for the Los Angeles-based, home-furnishing company, Barker Brothers. Influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement, early forms of Monterey (1929-1932) are similar to Mission-style furniture except that Monterey is finished with paint, hand-painted flowers, California tile, wrought-iron strapping, and rope decoration.8

To sell his work as well as obtain commissions, May placed his furniture in a new house for sale. When the house sold in part because of the furniture, May installed his furniture into another new house on the market and to his delight that house quickly sold, too. After experiencing such admiration for his furniture, May decided to design and build a house himself and worked out an agreement with real estate developer and his future father-in-law, Roy C. Lichty.9 Lichty, who owned several lots in San Diego that he could not readily sell because of the Great Depression, agreed to put up land and money for May to build a house. In return, May would provide the labor and if the house sold, they would split the profits in half.10 May drew up the plans and with the help of a master carpenter built his first house in 1932 in Talmadge Park, San Diego.11 Filled with May’s handcrafted Monterey furniture, the house sold for $9,500 to Colonel Arthur J. O’Leary.12

Cliff May house

May built his second house in 1933 with financial backing from a local grading contractor, O. U. Miracle.13 The house sold for $9,500 to Captain William Lindstrom.14 A year later, Architectural Digest featured the Lindstrom’s house in its 1934 issue. For a young man in his twenties, May was beginning to enjoy phenomenal success as a builder of houses. In fact, soon after the Lindstrom house appeared in Architectural Digest, other magazines featured May’s houses including American Home, California Arts & Architecture, and Sunset.15

By 1937 May had constructed over fifty houses and several non-residential buildings in the San Diego area.16 His early houses were very much based on the nineteenth-century ranch houses he had come to know in his childhood. Generally, May designed his houses as asymmetrical, one-story dwellings with a low-pitched roof and wide overhanging eaves. One room deep, it was crucial that the house take an L- or U-shaped configuration to form a patio or courtyard in the back so that the rooms of the ranch house faced or opened into these areas. Like the California adobes of the nineteenth century, May’s houses did not include an interior hallway. Instead an exterior corredor or covered veranda served as the primary hallway of the house. May also designed his houses so that they presented a blank façade to the street, however, he modernized his ranch houses with the use of large picture windows for the rooms facing the back.

May built his houses in two styles. His “Mexican Haciendas” were in the Spanish colonial revival style and featured red tile roofs, coarsely plastered walls, and deeply inset windows and doors with rough-hewn wooden lintels and shutters. By deliberately creating a crude, handcrafted appearance on the exterior of his haciendas, May’s houses are very similar in look and feel to nineteenth-century California adobes such as the Estudillo House in San Diego. In contrast, his “Early California Rancherias” resembled the vernacular architecture of the West in the nineteenth century with their wood-shingle roofs and board-and-batten walls.17 Clearly, both styles worked well for May and he continued to elaborate on them after he moved to Los Angeles during this period.

Cliff May ranch plans

When May moved to Los Angeles on the advice and help of John A. Smith, a former client, his career flourished.18 Smith not only provided May with financial backing from his firm, the First National Finance Corporation of Los Angeles, but also introduced him to Alphonzo Bell, real estate developer of Bel Air during the teens and twenties. With Bell’s advice and Smith’s money, May bought land in West Los Angeles and began his first major tract development.19 Called Riviera Ranch, the tract consisted of twenty-four homes on 2/3 to 1-acre parcels of land starting at $15,000. May advertised his development as “Exclusive Early California Ranches in a Planned Community on the last of the Great California Ranchos, San Vicente y Santa Monica.”20 Each house, he claimed, recreated “the romantic charm of early-day California Ranch life” but with all of the modern conveniences.21 One-story and shaped in a splayed U, the Riviera Ranch houses consisted of three or more bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen, and sunroom. They also had several outdoor patio areas and a garage. The style of the houses reflected May’s work in San Diego. Buyers could chose between a “hacienda” and “rancheria.” But more importantly, May specifically added other elements to this tract development to create “a rancho atmosphere.” Each home included stables, a tack room and paddock for horses; a hand-split redwood rail fence surrounding the lot; and a “ranch” gate which opened to a driveway, horse stables, and paths leading to various horse trails May formed through the development. In addition, May built a home here for his family that was featured in several magazines including Architectural Digest, Architectural Forum, House Beautiful, House and Garden, Sunset, and in both of Sunset’s Western ranch house books.22 Moreover, he used his house as model for designing over fifty custom homes.23

Although May continued to design houses for middle-to-upper-class clients, he also began to design for another profitable and large segment of the building market—the average American family. After examining the residential construction market in 1939, Architectural Forum selected one of May’s recently built houses as a “satisfactory low cost house.”24 The house, under 1,000 square feet, consisted of a living room, kitchen, dining room, two bedrooms and a bath at a cost of $3,550—a price according to Architectural Forum that met “the $35-a-month budget of the average U. S. citizen in the average U. S. community.”25 Unfortunately most American families would have to wait to enjoy such a home for World War II curtailed the construction of houses. May like other architects at the time, therefore, turned his attention to designing housing for defense workers.26

Once the war ended, housing had reached a critical situation. Residential construction had fallen far behind due to depression and war.27 Millions of families needed homes and it was in this atmosphere that the ranch house grew extremely popular and Cliff May enjoyed incredible success. Although many magazines would publicize May’s ranch designs, two major magazines particularly promoted him so that he became recognized as the leading designer of ranch houses in the 1940s and 1950s in the United States.28

Cliff May ranch home

Sunset magazine was May’s first major promoter. After World War II, Sunset was the top selling magazine in and of the West. Each month Sunset presented topics for its male and female readers on travel, food, houses, and gardens.29 Beginning in 1944 Sunset devoted several major articles on the ranch house and Cliff May.30 In 1946, Sunset magazine published Sunset Western Ranch Houses in collaboration with May. The book consisted of forty-three ranch house plans designed by various architects and builders, however, Cliff May’s work dominated with at least seventeen designs.31 Sunset Western Ranch Houses found instant success: 50,000 copies sold and it went through four printings.32

Throughout the late 1940s and into the 1950s Sunset continued to promote May’s ranch houses in magazine articles and by hiring him in 1951 to design their new corporate headquarters in Menlo Park. When completed, Sunset offered daily tours of its new 30,000 square-foot “suburban Western home” to the public and actively publicized it in their magazine.33 Clearly, May was one of the magazine’s favorite builders because in 1958 when Sunset produced one more book on Western ranch houses, it featured only Cliff May’s designs.34

Sunset magazine may have launched the ranch style and May’s designs in the West, however, it was House Beautiful that gave May’s ranch houses national attention. A Hearst magazine dedicated to home design and decoration, House Beautiful first did a full-length feature on Cliff May in 1946. Titled “Meet a Family That Really Knows How to Live,” the 26-page article focused on how May and his family lived in their Riviera Ranch home.35 But it was in 1948 that House Beautiful advanced May’s career when it built one of his ranch designs in Los Angeles. Called the “Pace-Setter House,” House Beautiful not only devoted a full issue to the house but also let the public tour the home they decorated, furnished, and landscaped.36 The house, like Sunset Western Ranch Houses, was an instant success with the public. After the article was published, May received twenty commissions to build this design all over the United States.37

Cliff May traditional ranch

With all of the attention May received after the war, it is important to ask why the ranch house appealed so much to the postwar generation. Certainly, magazines played a major role with their admiring articles on the ranch house.38 Movie stars like Olivia de Havilland and Gregory Peck, who lived in ranch homes, also added to its attraction.39 But more importantly, the ranch house with its rambling, open plan and walls of windows became associated with “the California way of life” of living casually, comfortably, and out-of-doors. After living in cramped accommodations, often with relatives, the ranch house seemed to fulfill the postwar buyer dream of enjoying wide, open spaces indoors and out all year round without the formalities associated with other house styles. And one did not need to live in California to enjoy ranch house living. As long as a family lived in a ranch house built with the latest technological advances in heating and cooling, they could enjoy ranch house living anywhere in the United States.40

And May designed what the public wanted. By the 1940s, he had largely abandoned the formal Spanish colonial revival style. Instead, he expanded on the vernacular architecture of the nineteenth-century West on the exterior of his houses with International Modern ideas for the interior. Hence, during this period, May’s houses are typically one-story dwellings with low-pitched, wood-shingle roofs and board-and-batten walls. On the interior, his houses are designed with free-flowing open plans, walls of windows (the larger size as well as quantity), and indoor spaces connected to the outdoors by the use of the same paving materials inside and out, extension of indoors planters to the outdoors, and arrangement of sliding glass doors leading into the backyard garden.41

In 1952, May’s ranch houses became available on a much wider basis for the middle-class American family. May, along with his associate architect Chris Choate, designed a suburban tract house. A subdivision using the plan was then built in Cupertino.42 Because of the success of this project, May and Choate formed the Ranch House Supply Corporation in 1953 to sell their designs in California to licensed builders. Success struck again. Before the year was out, May and Choate had sold their plans to nearly thirty builders throughout California. Thus, May and Choate expanded their company in 1954 to include the West and southern areas of the United States.43

Cliff May advertisement

May’s success as a suburban tract designer continued with the “Magic-Money House.” In 1953, the W & J Sloane Furniture Company constructed, furnished, and landscaped this ranch design on the roof of their six-story Beverly Hills store building.44 Advertised as a house for “young people with young incomes,” the Sloane company estimated that 35,000 people had visited this two-bedroom model house only four months after its opening. As a result, W & J Sloane built another Magic-Money House for their store in San Francisco. But this was not the only promotion that May received for the house. As W & J Sloane promoted the design, several subdivisions of Magic-Money Houses were built throughout California. By 1954 over one thousand Magic-Money Houses had been built. Moreover, the house received additional recognition when it was selected for exhibition at the Ninth Annual Los Angeles Home Show in June 1954.45

As the Magic-Money House grew in popularity so did Cliff May and the ranch house. In 1955, more than eight out of ten tract houses built in the United States were in the ranch style and Cliff May was the leading designer.46 Not only could May point to the number of ranch houses and non-residential buildings he designed and built but also the professional appointments he served and awards received. From 1940-1950 May was president of the Los Angeles division of the Building Contractors Association and from 1946-1952 a staff consultant to House Beautiful magazine. In 1947, 1952, and 1953 May won design awards from the National Association of Home Builders. Later he received an Award of Merit for Residential Design and Construction from House and Home in 1956 and the “Hallmark House” award from House and Garden in 1958.47 But, by far, May’s greatest success occurred when Sunset magazine produced a second Western ranch house book that featured his work exclusively—an accomplishment few architects have achieved.

Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May presents a broad sampling of May’s postwar work as well as the evolution of his Modernist ideas towards housing. The most important and creative of these are the ranch houses he designed for his family. In 1949 May remodeled his Riviera Ranch House in West Los Angeles expanding on the indoor-outdoor living concept by replacing fixed windows with sliding glass doors and enlarging the patio area in the backyard.48 However, May went even further with “bringing the outdoors in” as well as the idea of open planning when he built an “Experimental House” for his family in the early 1950s.

Cliff May house

A bold design, May created this house as a one-story, rectangular plan with a 288-square-foot open skylight down the center of the roof, glass walls, and only three interior walls for two bathrooms and a kitchen. Consisting of approximately 1,800 square feet of living space, May’s family of five formed different rooms through the use of movable partitions. The family lived in the house for two years while May learned how his open plan and sizeable skylight worked for the family.49 From their experiences May designed and built “Mandalay,” his last home for his family.

Mandalay integrated the design of the Experimental House with May’s latest thinking on the ranch style and Modernist ideas. Built in Sullivan Canyon in West Los Angeles in 1956, May designed Mandalay as a one-story dwelling with wings projecting at right angles from a central spine.50 He covered the low-pitched roofs with pebbles from a California creek bed and in two sections he cut skylights extending from one end of the roof to the other. He also extensively utilized glass walls, sliding glass windows, and indoor/outdoor planters—all design elements used in the Experimental House. More importantly, May added a new concept to the idea of bringing the outdoors in. Not only did he use the same paving materials inside and out but also the same ceiling and wall materials. Wooden roof beams and rafters as well as board-and-batten and white-plastered walls flowed from the outdoors in. Moreover, May included radiant heating in the patio terraces and outdoor lighting; ideas that he used in his other homes to make the outdoors feel as part of the indoors at night.

In arranging the rooms of the house May combined open planning with private spaces for the family. A large house, consisting of 6,300 square feet, May designed the entry, kitchen, and living, dining, and family rooms as one open area with no intervening doors. However, in creating spaces for the bedrooms, dressing rooms, and bathrooms, May did not make use of partitions as he had in the Experimental House. Instead, he built interior walls and doors to provide privacy for these rooms.

Cliff May ad

What is most interesting about Mandalay was May’s ideas about the ranch style. Although May designed the house as an asymmetrical, one-story dwelling, the plan was complex, forming courtyards on both sides of the house rather than having the main courtyard in the center. The roof was low-pitched with wide overhanging eaves but covered with rock rather than wood shingles. May included board-and-batten as well as white-plastered walls but felt that he needed to give the house “a sophisticated touch of the [Spanish] past.” To achieve such a worldly look, he added Spanish, Mexican, and French architectural crafts and decorative elements: a sixteenth-century Gothic grille, historic doors, lighting fixtures, and wrought-iron door handles, and antiquated books.51 Indeed, May’s California ranch house of the 1950s resembled a Contemporary Modern house rather than a nineteenth-century California adobe that he once strove to emulate in the 1930s.

Throughout the rest of his life, Cliff May would continue to design award-winning houses and non-residential buildings, including the famous Robert Mondavi Winery building that has appeared on Mondavi wine bottle labels since the 1960s.52 Yet, May was more than a designer of ranch houses and commercial buildings. He was an innovator, too. During his career he developed new flooring, heating, cooling, lighting, and wall systems. He also experimented with modular and prefabricated construction after World War II.53 And he continued to design and build furniture.54 But because May did not become a licensed architect until 1988, a year before he died, he never received recognition for his designs nor innovations by the profession’s association, the American Institute of Architects.55 In addition, although scholars recognized May’s contribution for developing the California ranch house, the style itself was generally considered a vernacular rather than an exceptional or significant architectural style, and thus, not truly worthy of a lengthy study. However, this is beginning to change.

The California ranch house has reached its fiftieth anniversary, prompting a growing fascination in this “new” historic architectural style and Cliff May. Indeed, local historical groups have begun to arrange lectures about May and organize tours to view his works. Hennessey & Ingalls, a company that specializes in republishing “classic” architectural books, lately reprinted Sunset Western Ranch Houses and Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May making them available again to the general public. Moreover, two of May’s houses—the Lindstrom House and Experimental House—were recently listed as historic landmarks.56 Most of all, historians are now seriously researching the ranch style and interpreting it as the significant architectural style of the 1940s and 1950s. As a result, they are recognizing Cliff May for not only defining the California ranch house but also as the major designer of the American dream home of the 1940s and 1950s—a style that is still built extensively today.

 

This article was originally published in the Southern California Quarterly 86, no. 2 (2004). No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission of the author.

 

BIO

Mary van Balgooy

Mary A. van Balgooy is an award-winning museum professional who has worked in a variety of institutions, including archives, botanic gardens, historic houses, historical societies, museums, preservation organizations, universities, and governmental agencies at city, county, and federal levels with major responsibilities for administration, collections, education and interpretation, fundraising, preservation, and public relations.

Mary is vice president of Engaging Places, LLC, and the first executive director of the Society of Woman Geographers (SWG), an international membership association based in Washington, D.C.

More on Cliff May

 

 

Notes:
1 Architectural Digest IX [1934]. For more information on these architects and their designs see David Gebhard and Robert Winter, Architecture in Los Angeles: A Compleat Guide (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1985), 18, 122, 232, 339, 375, 415.
2 May’s career spanned almost sixty years. Sam Hall Kaplan, “Cliff May: Designer of Dream Houses,” Los Angeles Times, 29 October 1989, sec. K; Brendan Gill, “Remembering Cliff May,” Architectural Digest 48 (May 1991): 30.
3 David Bricker, “Cliff May” in Toward a Simpler Way of Life: The Arts & Crafts Architects of California, ed. Robert Winter (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997), 283; R. W. Brackett, A History of the Ranchos of San Diego County, California (San Diego: Union Title Insurance and Trust Company, 1939), 22-25, 64-66; “Casa de Estudillo,” 1999-2001 <http://www.sandiegohistory.org/links/oldtown.htm#estudillo> (30 December 2001); Sally B. Woodbridge, California Architecture: Historic American Buildings Survey (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1988), 202-203.
4 Sally Bullard Thornton, “Hazel Wood Waterman” in Winter, ed., Toward a Simpler Way of Life, 221-223.
5 Kathie Graler, “Spanish Missions and Adobe” in Settler Communities in the West, July 1994, <https://www.denix.osd.mil/denix/Public/ES-Programs/Conservation/Legacy/Settler/sett6.html> (22 Jan. 2002); Cliff May, interview by Marlene L. Laskey, 1984, Oral History Program, University of California, Los Angeles, viii.
6 Bricker, “Cliff May,” 284. In his oral history, May stated he took all upper division business courses when he first enrolled. After completing those courses he did not want to take the basic requirement classes for his degree because he was impatient to get out into the world. May interview by Laskey, viii, 79.
7 Ibid., 81.
8 Roger Renick, “Monterey Furniture: California Spanish Revival, 1929-1943,” West Coast Peddler 31 (March 1999): 51-57; Robert L. Smith, et al., Monterey: California Rancho Furniture, Pottery and Art (exhibit catalogue) (Santa Monica: Santa Monica Heritage Museum, 1989).
9 May married Jean Lichty in 1932 at the San Diego Mission. Lecture presented by Jody Greenwald, Mount St. Mary’s College, California, 23 September 2000.
10 May interview by Laskey, 81-83. The history of who May worked with to install his furniture in model homes as well as construct his first house is unclear. In his oral history May states that he placed his furniture in the house of a friend O. U. Miracle, who was a realtor. It was Miracle who then introduced him to his future father-in-law, R. C. Lichty. However, David Bricker writes that May placed his furniture in one of Lichty’s model homes and that May worked in partnership with Miracle, who was Lichty’s grading contactor to design and build the O’Leary house. Bricker, “Cliff May,” 285.
11 At this time, one could practice architecture if one notified the client in writing that one was not an architect. In his oral history May commented that he drew up simple floor plans that would not pass inspection today. In addition, his friend and “mentor,” William F. Hale, taught him how to construct this house. The building of the house started in 1931. May interview by Laskey, 85, 90-91, 93.
12 Ibid., 83; David Bricker, “Built for Sale: Cliff May and the Low Cost California Ranch House” (Master’s Thesis, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1983), 111, n. 28.
13 “Cliff May, Miracle Company” advertisement in Architectural Digest IX [1934]: 84.
14 Bricker, “Built for Sale,” 111, n. 28.
15 “Haciendas & Rancherias By Cliff May, Honors by the World” advertisement in Architectural Digest IX [1937]: 160.
16 May’s non-residential works included a women’s club building and two motels. May interview by Laskey, viii; Bricker, “Built for Sale,” 111, n. 28; 115, n. 35.
17 Many people today associate board-and-batten siding with the frontier West. However, board-and-batten became popular during the picturesque movement with the Gothic revival style (1840-1875) and spread to the West as Americans settled on the frontier. William H. Pierson, Jr., Technology and the Picturesque, the Corporate and the Early Gothic Styles, vol. 2 of American Buildings and Their Architects (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 304, 454.
18 John A. Smith was an oil industrialist and banker. He hired May to build a home for him in La Habra after visiting one of May’s completed projects in Presidio Hills, San Diego. Bricker, “Built for Sale,” 112, n. 29.
19 May also built houses in other areas (one in Bel Air and one in Mandeville Canyon) when he first arrived in Los Angeles. Ibid., 12, 112, n. 29; Gill, “Remembering Cliff May,” 30.
20 The development was located on Sunset Boulevard across from the Riviera Country Club Polo Fields. “Open for Inspection, Urban Model Ranch” advertisement in the Los Angeles Times, Sunday, 20 October 1940, sec. 5.
21 Ibid.; Cynthia Castle, “The Times Home Hunter,” Los Angeles Times, Sunday, 17 November 1940, sec. 5.
22 This was not May’s first house in Los Angeles. When May moved to Los Angeles, he constructed a house in Mandeville Canyon. Soon after the completion of the Riviera Ranch house, May sold his house and moved to the tract development. “Residence of Mr. and Mrs.
Cliff May, Mandeville Canyon,” Architectural Digest X [1935]: 52-53. Magazines that featured May’s Riviera Ranch house: “Modern Ranch House of Mr. and Mrs. Cliff May, Riviera Ranch, West Los Angeles 24,” Architectural Digest XI [1935]: 4-9; “House in West Los Angeles, California,” Architectural Forum (December 1944): 134-135; Helen Weigel Brown, “Meet a Family That Really Knows How to Live,” House Beautiful (April 1946): 74-99; “Streamlining the Ranch House,” House and Garden (November 1941): 20-21; “What’s the Future of the Ranch House?,” Sunset (June 1944): 10-13; and “More About the Ranch House,” Sunset (June 1944): 38-40. Sunset’s two books are: The Editorial Staff of Sunset Magazine in collaboration with Cliff May, Sunset Western Ranch Houses (1946; reprint, Santa Monica, CA: Hennessey and Ingalls, 1999) and The Editorial Staff of Sunset Magazine and Books under the Direction of Paul C. Johnson, editor of Sunset Books, Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May (1958; reprint, Santa Monica, CA: Hennessey and Ingalls, 1997).
23 Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May, 25. May would remodel Riviera Ranch in 1949.
24 “50 Low Cost Houses,” Architectural Forum 70 (April 1939): 263.
25 “50 Low Cost Houses—House in San Diego, California, Cliff May, Designer,” Architectural Forum 70 (April 1939): 276; “The Low Cost House,” Architectural Forum 70 (April 1939): 261.
26 May’s commissions included temporary barracks in Glendale, a one bedroom duplex development project for Ontario, and single-family defense houses in Wilmington. Bricker, “Built for Sale,” 14-15.
27 Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 232.
28 Other magazines that featured May include Good Housekeeping, Architectural Record, Pic, Better Homes and Gardens, House and Home, Life, and American Home.
29 Cissie Dore Hill, “Sunset: A Century of Western Living, 1898-1998,” California History 78 (Summer 1999): 95-96; Tomas Jaehn, “Four Eras: Changes of Ownership,” Sunset Magazine: A Century of Western Living, 1898-1998: Historical Portraits and A Chronological Bibliography of Selected Topics (Stanford: Stanford Libraries, 1998), 90, 100.
30 “What is the Western Ranch House,” Sunset (February 1944): 12-13; “Is Ranch House the Name for It?,” Sunset (May 1944): 10-13; “What’s the Future of the Ranch House?,” Sunset (June 1944): 10-13; “More About the Ranch House,” Sunset (June 1944): 38-40; “The Changeable, Flexible Ranch House,” Sunset (July 1944): 10-13.
31 The second architect to have the most designs published was Worley Wong with four. Sunset Western Ranch Houses, 30-160.
32 “The Ranch House, Early California to Today,” Sunset (August 1988): 144.
33 “Sunset Magazine Has a New Home in the Country,” Sunset (August 1951): 29; “On the Next Pages . . . We Invite You on a Walk Through Sunset’s New Home,” Sunset (August 1952): 47-54.
34 The second book on ranch houses was titled Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May.
35 Brown, “Meet a Family,” 74-99.
36 “A House to Set the Pace,” House Beautiful (February 1948): 61-71; “The Advantages of Turning Your Back on the World,” House Beautiful (February 1948): 88-89; “A Four-Way Kitchen,” House Beautiful (February 1948): 106-107; “Advanced,” House Beautiful (February 1948): 110-111. The Pace-Setter House was then sold. It still stands today in Los Angeles and is a private residence.
37 Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May, 66.
38 From 1945 to 1947 magazines referred to California domestic architecture four times more than any other state. Thomas Hine, “The Search for the Postwar House” in Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses, ed. Elizabeth A. T. Smith (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 1989), 172.
39 Ibid.; Anne Edwards, “Gregory Peck: To Kill a Mockingbird’s Oscar Winner in Pacific Palisades,” Architectural Digest 53 (April 1996): 166-171, 296.
40 Clifford Edward Clark, Jr., The American Family Home, 1800-1960 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1986), 210-211; Gwendolyn Wright, Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1981), 242, 253.
41 Lesley Jackson, ed., ‘Contemporary’: Architecture and Interiors of the 1950s (London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1994), 19, 23-25.
42 Sunset magazine featured the house for their cover article. “More Living Space,” Sunset (November 1952): 44-47.
43 Chris Choate started working for May after World War II. He became May’s associate architect in 1949 and their business relationship lasted until the mid-1950s. Bricker, “Built for Sale,” 14, 82, 85.
44 “Look What’s on Sloane’s Roof!” advertisement in the Los Angeles Times, Sunday, 21 June 1953, sec. 5. The store was located at 9560 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills.
45 Bricker, “Built for Sale,” 87-88, 91.
46 Ibid., 81. The design and look of the ranch house in other parts of the country did vary according to climate and tastes.
47 May interview by Laskey, ix.
48 Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May, 24-39.
49 Ibid., 126-131.
50 In Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May, Sunset states that the house was built in 1956. However, other sources including photographs by Julius Shulman indicate that Mandalay was completed by 1953. Ibid., 142; Lecture by Jody Greenwald, 23 September 2000.
51 Western Ranch Houses by Cliff May, 142-159. May lived in Mandalay until his death in the 1980s. During the time that he lived there, he remodeled the house thirteen times. In 1994 the house was demolished. Lecture by Jody Greenwald, 23 September 2000; Annette Andreozzi, “Cliff May’s Definitive Ranch House Demolished,” Los Angeles Conservancy News 17 (May/June 1995): 4.
52 David Colen, “View from Wappo Hill,” Architectural Digest 46 (May 1989): 276-282.
53 May interview by Laskey, xi.
54 Laura Tanner, “Outdoor Furniture That Can Stay Out,” House Beautiful (May 1950): 160-166.
55 Kaplan, “Cliff May,” sec. K. When May moved to Los Angeles he built a house in Bel Air that received a lot of publicity. Apparently some local members of the A. I. A. did not like all the attention May was attracting nor the liberal use of the title “architect” attached to his name since he was not licensed as one. Thus, they threatened May with a lawsuit. Fortunately, May’s friend John Smith stepped in and had his attorneys clear any grievance against him. However, May would not be allowed to use the title “architect,” only designer or builder. Bricker, “Built for Sale,” 12, 113, n. 30; Gill, “Remembering Cliff May,” 30.
56 The Lindstrom House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on 13 February 2001 and the City of Los Angeles Cultural Commission designated May’s Experimental House as a Historic-Cultural Monument in May 2002.

 

Susan Avitzour author

Phil Ochs’ Guitar

by Susan Petersen Avitzour

 

For years, I was convinced I was responsible for Phil Ochs’ death.

I conceived this belief six years before he died.

 

Friday, March 27, 1970

            Oh, I marched to the battle of New Orleans at the end of the early British war

Carnegie Hall erupted into shouts of joy and wild applause. Phil was singing “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” and we were eating it up. We could almost forget the gold costume, the weird guitar, the Fifties-style numbers he’d opened with. “We came for Phil, not Elvis,” someone behind me had grumbled. But now the hall roiled with long-haired, tie-dyed children of the Sixties singing along, clapping, dancing in place. My sister Ruth and I rocked in our seats. What could be better?

I was fifteen, too young to truly belong to the decade that was now drawing to a close, but I fervently identified with its ideals. Peace, Love, Freedom for All Peoples. Look out, world, our songs said, we’re a-coming and you’re a-changing. This concert was meant to be our time, our place, our message. Though I hadn’t absorbed this from the Sixties generation; Ruth and I had inherited it from our father.

Daddy had died two months before the concert; it was he who’d introduced us to Phil Ochs. Our parents had separated when I was eleven and Ruth was nine, and a couple of years later we found pages of Phil’s lyrics and some poems on the coffee table in our father’s living room. “This young man is talking about the real issues,” he said. “Not like these other songwriters nowadays, who can think only about themselves and their own feelings.” The next day, Ruth and I went out and bought our first album.

 

The audience forgave Phil, but not for long. He transitioned into a set of country-rock-n-roll songs, some he’d written and some by Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Merle Haggard. None, not even his own, had a thing to do with change, any connection with repairing the world.

“What happened to Phil Ochs?” one man shouted.

“This is as much Phil Ochs as anything else,” Phil retorted, and launched into one of his new songs.

Fill ‘er up with love please won’t you, mister
Just the hi-test is what I used to say
But that was before I lost my baby
I’ll have a dollar’s worth of regular today.

Restless bodies shifted in their seats. Country music belonged to the enemy, they were saying, to those flag-waving, war-loving rednecks.

But I sat quietly, trying to piece together what Phil was trying to do. Not all his songs were political, I knew. Some were lyrical. Some were autobiographical. At that thought – just as the booing started – I leaned forward in my seat and listened closely to the lyrics.

I never should have left my home, never left the farm
But the city was exciting, it couldn’t do me any harm…

I held my breath. Phil was channeling my father.

Walter Martin Petersen always felt it was up to him to right the world’s wrongs. Born on a farm just before the Great Depression, he grew up watching his mother serve plates of beans to the starving hoboes who’d come knocking at their back door. In high school he joined the Young People’s Socialist League, eventually becoming National Secretary. He enlisted right after graduating, hoping to fight the Nazis, though his flat feet landed him in the Merchant Marine. After the war and three years of college, he worked for a time as a machinist in a rather romantic bid to join the working class. A few years later, he lost another job – with the Liberal Party, of all employers – for spending most of his time preaching Socialism and trying to organize the personnel. When Ruth and I were small he’d sing us to sleep with songs like “Union Maid” and “Which Side Are You On?” (“This side!” “No, this side!” we’d pipe up from our beds.)

One time, about two years after he moved out, he picked us up for our regular Tuesday visit and told us he’d be taking us someplace special. “It’s a surprise.”

We were certainly surprised when we got there. A supermarket?

“You’ll see,” he said, winking.

As it turned out, he’d collected contributions from his friends and co-workers to buy food for Biafra, a famine-stricken province trying to secede from Nigeria. The three of us rolled up and down the aisles as if it were a skating rink, piling can upon can until the cart threatened to tip over. I’ll never forget his pride – and ours – when we drove out to the harbor and delivered those cans to the Africa-bound aid ship.

But it was the war in Vietnam that truly galvanized him. As it did the troubadour of the antiwar movement, Phil Ochs.

 

The audience was beginning to heckle in earnest, but I barely registered the commotion.

I cannot face another girl, I believe I’ll turn to drink
So I won’t remember, so I won’t have to think
Tomorrow will bring happiness or, at least, another day
So I will bid farewell and I’ll be on my way.

Was Phil drinking? Was that why his voice was beginning to hoarsen, to crack? Maybe he was just having an off day.

(A year or so after the separation, our father had told Ruth and me that he’d “stopped drinking.” That was how we found out he was an alcoholic. “But I’ve been dry ever since I moved out,” he proudly proclaimed.)

As the audience jeered, I suddenly felt protective. Can’t they see he isn’t feeling well?

Then Phil started “My Life,” the song I’d always felt my father could have written. This one was a “real” Phil Ochs number, and the crowd quieted and listened.

My life was once a joy to me
Ever knowing I was growing every day,
My life was once a toy to me
And I wound it and I found it ran away…

I knew just what he meant by “toy.” During the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Phil had not only sung to the protestors, but had also inspired his admirers and enraged his detractors with antics like buying a pig for Abbie Hoffman to nominate for President. He seemed to be having so much fun that I was a little envious of him and his friends.

My father also always loved the comic, the unexpected, the outrageous. In high school he’d been entitled, as student council president, to use the public address system. One morning he went into the school office and asked for the mike. “My dear friends,” he said, “I have a very sad announcement to make.” The secretaries in the office stopped what they were doing and looked at him, eyes wide. Had someone died?

At the time, a joke was being whispered around the school. A mortician is preparing a man’s body for the funeral. He’s so impressed by the body’s huge member that he cuts it off and brings it home to show his wife. She takes one look, gasps, and exclaims – and my father announced, without any lead-in, over the intercom – “Schultz is dead!”

One of his favorite shticks was to throw a blanket over our heads when he was driving us somewhere in his old black Morris Minor. “Charlie,” he’d say in a hoarse gangster’s voice, “where d’ya think we should dump dese goils?” He’d then speak in a high, cracked whine. “In da river, where d’ya think, Pete?” “I dunno, I’m gettin tired a dat place,” he’d have “Charlie” say. He’d keep this up until Ruth and I were helpless with laughter.

But his sense of humor began to wither as anger and despair over Vietnam slowly engulfed him. Antiwar activity began to push all else out of his life; he talked about practically nothing else.

I can’t remember when I first became aware of his obsession. It was certainly in full bloom by the time he sat Ruth and me down – how old were we? eleven and thirteen? – and explained to us about napalm. Words couldn’t describe it, he said, so he opened the folder he kept on his coffee table. Ruth cried, I think, but I just stared at the photos of blackened skin, of shriveled limbs, of half-melted faces. They are with me to this day.

About a year before he died, he founded a committee to raise funds for North Vietnamese victims of American bombing. After that, movies, miniature golf, and walks in the park were gradually replaced with afternoons stuffing envelopes in his apartment or handing out leaflets in midtown Manhattan.

Once, toward evening on a hot June day, he opened a folding table on the corner of 59th and Lexington. Passing sedans gunned their motors, taxis honked their impatience, and buses spewed their exhaust as we stacked our flyers. The sidewalk boiled with men and women rushing to the nearest bus or subway stop without more than a glance in our direction.

Finally, a young woman took a page and stopped for a moment to read it. “Yeah, this friggin’ war is the pits,” she said, opening her purse, “and it’s just going on and on.”

A group of curious teenagers drifted over. “Hey, what’s happening?” one said.

“Collecting for victims of American bombing in Vietnam,” my father said. “Can you help?”

“No, man, I can relate,” said another of the kids, “but I’m broke.” They milled around for another couple of minutes before ambling off.

Ruth and I went back to work. I’d just gotten into the swing of things – step up to a likely-looking woman or man, smile, offer a leaflet, get rebuffed, say “Thanks anyway,” then step up to the next person – when a rough voice coming from behind startled me out of my rhythm.

“What are you, some kind of Commies?”

We’d attracted the attention of two brawny men in sweaty T-shirts and hard hats. Their fists were clenched at their sides.

“No, no,” my father said, “just against the war.”

“Against America, you mean.” One took a step toward the table.

My father held up his hands, palms out. “Now, let’s not start anything. No one’s looking for trouble here.”

The hard hats exchanged glances and sniggered. One hawked and spat. The other grinned, walked up to my father, and upended the table. “Fucking Commies,” he said, before strutting off with his friend.

My father stood still for a moment, then bent down and pulled the table upright. Ruth and I collected the leaflets from the sidewalk and re-stacked them neatly. Then we went back to trying our best to interest the uninterested.

But it was only when Charlotte moved in with him that his obsession with the war morphed into full-blown monomania. Ruth and I had liked Rita, his first post-separation girlfriend. She was like Mom, feisty and funny, and Ruth and I were sorry when they broke up. Still, we were prepared to accept a new woman in his life, and curious to meet this one.

It was a shock when he finally brought us to his apartment and introduced us to her. My mother and Rita were hardly model material, but both were trim, well-dressed, and well-groomed. Charlotte was short and dumpy, with uneven features and long, curly black hair streaked with grey. Flaky face powder did a very bad job of concealing her very bad skin; bright red lipstick strayed here and there from the outlines of her mouth. She was dressed in an oversized T-shirt and shiny black pants.

I really didn’t care about Charlotte’s looks, though; it was her behavior that got to me. I can’t remember her saying a single positive word. Ever. The country was run by reactionaries; the hypocritical liberals were no better; the media was in cahoots with the forces of evil.

Ruth and I didn’t escape her scorn. Once we walked into our father’s living room wearing buttons saying “End the War in Vietnam Now” and “War Is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things.” Charlotte looked at us and snorted. “These liberals,” she said through clenched teeth, “they think all they need to do is wear a button and they’ve done their part.” She stormed out of the room.

Another time, our father asked Ruth and me if we had any advice that might help Charlotte lose weight. We told him that when our mother was on a diet she’d sometimes dine on half a cantaloupe filled with low-fat cottage cheese. A couple of weeks later, Charlotte, flushed with anger, proclaimed that our “diet” was making her sick. It turned out she’d eaten nothing but melon and cottage cheese ever since he’d passed on our suggestion.

Part of what attracted my father to Charlotte was that she’d lived for some time in North Vietnam. He told us how she’d found Hanoi not to be the drab, grim caricature the American media painted of Communist countries. (At the time, I imagined life behind the Iron Curtain as lived literally in black and white.) Not at all; it was an Eden of beautiful public gardens and happy people who only wanted to be left alone to spread their bounty to their countrymen in the South. The summer after we met her, she told us to call her Lan, the Vietnamese name she’d taken when she lived there. Ruth and I learned this right after we returned from camp, where Ruth had woven her a beautiful lanyard bracelet spelling out C-H-A-R-L-O-T-T-E. She took one look and flung it back, saying only, “I don’t want it. That’s not my name.”

Charlotte/Lan also gave my father the chance to care for someone worse off than himself. She never leafleted with us, as she usually felt unwell. She was high-strung and sickly, he told us, because she’d been raised by a mother with a four-way split personality.

We were sitting in Prospect Park that particular spring day, eating sandwiches he’d quickly slapped together (she was resting; lunch in the apartment would make too much noise). Hoping to attract a squirrel, Ruth and I were throwing small pieces of bread to the sparrows and pigeons pecking around our feet.

“One of Lan’s mothers was almost normal,” he told us, “but she was almost never ‘out.’ The second was a nervous wreck who wouldn’t let her do anything, even go out to play. Number three was furious all the time, and used to beat her.”

I caught sight of something out of the corner of my eye. Was that a bushy tail flashing around that tree? Maybe if I threw a big chunk in that direction….

“The fourth personality,” my father said, “was so passive that she didn’t do a thing to take care of her own daughter.” He pressed his fingers against his eyes.

“So you see –” His voice broke. “So you see, she never really had anyone until she met me.” Tears glistened on his cheek. “I know you understand.”

I stole a glance at Ruth, who was busy shredding her bread. Then I nodded, turned quickly to the squirrel, and tossed it the crust I’d been clenching in my fist.

Toward the end of 1969, the sun seemed to come out again for my father. His face seemed lighter, and he smiled more often. He even took us one evening to Greenwich Village to hand out flowers. Holding armfuls of multicolored daisies and carnations, we waited for hippies to come and accept our offerings. When none turned up, we set out in active pursuit, wandering up and down the maze of streets until we finally got to Washington Square Park. Still no luck. So we gave the flowers to anyone who’d take them, mostly New Yorkers but also many tourists like the wide-eyed lady who came up to us and said, “Wow, are you real hippies?”

And he got funny again. True, some of this was “funny strange” – for one thing, he took to wearing an ascot and a beret, and using the word “groovy.” But, Ruth and I agreed, even the embarrassment of “groovy” was better than the bleak talk of the war that had been our fare for so long. And it was so good to laugh with him!

He didn’t give up his activism, of course; in October he took Ruth and me on our first and only road trip together, to the big antiwar march on Washington. He couldn’t stop marveling at how many people had turned out – at least a million, and from all over the country! It had been forever since I’d seen him so optimistic.

Until his toy ran away too.

 

Phil got to the last verse.

My life is now a myth to me
Like the drifter, with his laughter in the dawn.
My life is now a death to me
So I’ll hold it and I’ll mold it till I’m born…

Suddenly a thought set my stomach prickling. If his life is now a death, then being born can only mean….

And the next line:

So I turn from the land where I’m so out of place…

A picture popped into my head: the cover of Rehearsals for Retirement, the album that included “My Life,” showed a tombstone:

Phil Ochs
(American)
Born: El Paso, Texas, 1940
Died: Chicago, Illinois, 1968

I’d thought this inscription was funny when the album first came out, but it no longer felt like just another of Phil’s outrageous jokes. And I knew, I just knew that I was the one person in the audience who understood exactly what he was saying.

What to do? And how?

Phil returned to his new program, and his fans to their complaints. Suddenly, in the middle of a Buddy Holly song, he stopped and walked quickly off the stage. The audience sat stunned. After a couple of minutes a man came on stage, announced that the show was over, and requested that we please leave the auditorium.

Inching with the crowd down the curved, carved grand staircase, Ruth and I speculated. Was Phil insulted? Couldn’t take the jeering anymore? Was he sick, his voice completely gone?

People around me began to mutter. What was this? The gold suit and the country-rock songs were bad enough, but cutting the concert short like that? The murmurs turned to open anger. “We paid good money for this show,” one fan said.

We found the marble and gold entrance hall packed, mostly with young men. Some were milling around. Others were sitting-in on the floor, demanding free entrance to the second show. Under one of the soaring arches that make Carnegie’s lobby look more like a cathedral than a theater, a group of scraggy bearded types had mounted a low side staircase and were exhorting the crowd: If the capitalists who own this place think they can cheat us, they’ve got something else coming. Power To The People!

Bored with their rhetoric, I looked around me – and there he was, just like that. Phil Ochs, out of his gold suit now, wearing ordinary jeans and a leather jacket, walking in from the back door. All eyes were on the orators on the staircase landing; no else one had noticed Phil. My heart picking up, I hurried over.

“Mr. Ochs,” I said. He glanced at me with agitated eyes. “Mr. Ochs, I just wanted to say that I’m really sorry for the way the audience acted during your performance. If you don’t feel well I underst–”

“Can you hold this for me?”

“Excuse me?” I could barely hear him over the shouting.

“Can you hold my guitar for me?”

My pulse throbbed in my neck. “Of course.”

I gathered the guitar into my arms and cradled it so its neck rested against my right shoulder, its body pressed into my middle.

Phil Ochs’ guitar. I imagined it as it must have looked nestled inside its black leather case, as I’d seen it onstage just a short time before. Dark, rich wood, its contours edged in a shiny white. Shaped like an electric, though he’d played it unplugged – a jazz guitar, I learned many years later. Its weight and bulk made it awkward to hold; still, I hugged it close, wondering for a second if I was dreaming.

But I didn’t have time to truly savor the moment, because here was my chance.

“You know,” I said, my voice shaking, “my father was just like you. He also –”

But Phil didn’t hear me. He turned away and began wading through the crowd toward the side staircase. Taking care not to damage my precious burden, I followed, catching up to him just as he mounted the self-styled revolutionaries’ podium. After speaking with them for a minute or two, he turned to me. “Can you say something to everyone for me, real loud?”

I nodded and climbed up beside him.

“Tell them,” he said, his breath ragged. “Tell them there’s been a bomb threat.”

I shouted out his words, to a chorus of boos.

“Tell them the threat turned out to be nothing. And I’ll let the management know that anyone who wants can come to the second show.”

Triumphant cheers.

“Listen,” he said to me quietly, taking back his guitar, “I’ll be around the corner at the –” He fumbled in his shirt pocket for a slip of paper. “This restaurant.” I read an Italian name. “If there’s any problem, you come tell me.”

I nodded and opened my mouth, but before I could say a word he was out the door.

Fifteen minutes later, I made my way to the restaurant. The theater’s manager had insisted it was up to him, not to Phil Ochs, not to any performer, to decide who gets into a show, and for how much, and certainly whether or not to let anyone in for free. And no way was he letting this mob in for free. The crowd had reacted predictably, and I’d left the lobby ringing with chants of Powerrrrrrrr to the People!”

Another opening. I figured Phil and I would walk back to the theater together.

In the restaurant’s muted light it took me some time to find him at a back table, where he sat with some other adults and a little girl. His daughter? “Rehearsals for Retirement” popped into my head.

Had I known the end would end in laughter
I tell my daughter it doesn’t matter.

I noticed absently that his daughter’s hair was dark blond and straight, like mine.

“Mr. Ochs,” I said, moving over to where he could see me, “you wanted –”

“Who are you?” Startled, I looked around the table. The voice belonged to an older woman. She looked about sixty. His mother…?

I looked at Phil. “I – I came because he wanted –”

“Can’t you leave him alone?”

“I’m sorry –”

“They don’t leave him alone for a minute,” she said to the table in general, then turned back to me. “Can’t you at least let him eat?”

“But he asked me to let him know –”

“Let him eat!” She glared at me.

“They won’t let people into the second show,” I said quickly.

Phil looked exhausted. He was pale, and his voice shook. “Tell them I’ll come in a little bit and talk with the management.”

OK, I was about to say, Enjoy your dinner, when a strident voice drowned out the soft background music.

“Hey, man, this really sucks.” I looked over my shoulder; a group of young men had apparently followed me from the theater.

I would speak with Phil once more. He’d return to the theater later that evening to keep his promise, only to find the box office closed. He’d smash a furious fist through its window, badly hurting his hand. So he’d borrow mine, and I’d take down the names of those who wanted to attend the second show.

But there would be no more moments when I might say what I wanted so much to say to him.

I’d missed my chance. Just as I had with Daddy.

 

Friday, January 30, 1970

I was hoping for snow, but it was an exceptionally clear night. My father had taken my sister and me to dinner, without Lan. He drove us home without saying a word, and I realized suddenly that he hadn’t cracked a joke all evening. It felt strange; I’d gotten used to laughing through meals with him again.

We arrived at Four Stuyvesant Oval at about nine-thirty. Our red-brown brick building stood waiting for us, dusky and impassive in the crescent moon’s light. Ruth and I got out of the car for the transition back to Mom territory. Usually we’d give him a quick kiss through his rolled-down window before he drove off, but this time he killed the engine and got out with us. I shivered a little in the frozen air as he looked at us intently, then bent down and clasped Ruth to him. Eyes closed, face unreadable, he held her a very long time.

I flashed on a photograph he’d recently given each of us. Daddy, receding hair freshly cut, tie carefully adjusted, glasses angled to minimize glare. Daddy, without the slightest trace of a smile. “So you’ll have a picture of your old man,” he’d said.

Now, watching him holding Ruth, something strange was going on in the pit of my stomach. Strange, but somehow familiar. What was it?

It came to me. The only other time I’d felt like this was that Saturday four years before.

We were sitting on the bare floor of our small bedroom, absorbed in a game of Monopoly. Sleet crackled against the steamy windowpane; the radiator hissed; the colorful bills rustled as we counted them out. Suddenly we heard our father clearing his throat. He stood in the doorway; his face sadder than I’d ever seen it. “Come to the living room,” he said. “Your mother and I want to talk with you.”

I thought, They’re going to tell us they’re getting a divorce.

I’d been almost right. Our parents weren’t divorcing, but they were separating. He was leaving the next day.

Now, as he held Ruth in that long embrace, my inner telegraph was signaling again. Daddy Is Going Away. He and Lan are surely moving to North Vietnam. We’ll never see him again.

As he put his arms around me and hugged tighter than I could remember him ever holding me, I cried out, Daddy, don’t go! Don’t leave us!

Except that the words stayed in my head.

He took me by the shoulders. There was pain in his eyes, as if he could see the scream in mine, as if he knew I knew. But he gave us each one last silent kiss, and drove away.

The next afternoon, Ruth and I came home from a day of volunteering at the Student Coordination Committee to End the War in Vietnam to find our living room overflowing with relatives and family friends. Our mother took us into our bedroom and sat us down.

I’d been almost right, again.

This horrible country killed me – as it killed Lan – by betraying and befouling every possible decent aspect of life here through the crucifixion of an innocent, harmless people, he’d written in his note to Ruth and me. The note to our mother explained that he and Lan had been planning to leave the United States for North Vietnam, where they’d hoped to make their home. Hanoi had rejected their application, crushing the only reason they had left to stay in this world.

And I’d done nothing to stop him from leaving.

 

Don’t kill yourself, I’d wanted to say to Phil Ochs. You have a daughter.

During the six years from that ill-starred concert until the day Phil was found hanging from a short rope, I thought many times – often at first, then gradually less so – of writing him a letter saying just that. But where would I send it? I had no address for him. I knew of no more concerts. There were no more albums, either, after Phil Ochs’ Greatest Hits, a collection of the Ochs songs the audience had booed that night. (Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, a live recording from that same concert, would be released in the United States only many years later.)

Time passed. Phil faded out of my life as I grew into it. I fell in love with my first boy, then the next, then the next. I finished high school, went off to college. I spoke about my father with one therapist, then another, then another.

It happened once or twice that a stranger approached me on a New York street and said shyly, almost reverentially, “Aren’t you the girl who held Phil Ochs’ guitar?” Uncomfortable with this derivative celebrity, such as it was, I simply nodded.

Pete Seeger came to Wesleyan toward the end of my senior year, a very short time after Phil’s death. When a friend had called me with the news about Phil, my heart had contracted. He did it. Just as I was afraid he would. He really did it. I’d been right once more. But I was busy with my senior thesis, and had few thoughts to spare for anything else. The raw fact – suicide – truly hit me only when the grandfather of folk and protest music sang one of Phil’s songs in his memory. “Changes,” I believe it was, one of my favorites. Thinking of words unspoken, I cried.

It was then that the vague and fleeting guilt I’d felt each time I contemplated that unwritten and unsent letter to Phil revived, took shape, and crystallized into the thought – irrational and illogical, I knew, but insistent nonetheless – that what I’d held in my hands all those years ago was not only Phil Ochs’ guitar, but his life.

 

Friday, June 24, 2011

It’s not often that Wikipedia changes one’s world. But that’s just what happens today, when I open the article on Phil Ochs. It describes his career, of course, and lists his albums. There’s even a separate sub-heading for 1970, which describes his gold-suited concert tour – Carnegie hadn’t been the only concert at which “his fans didn’t know how to respond,” as Wiki put it delicately – and the beginning of his sharp emotional and professional decline.

But I know most of that even before I open the page. And it’s hardly surprising to learn that Phil suffered from alcoholism, that he sometimes needed drugs to help him get through performances. The discovery that blows me away is that he was ultimately diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

And other severe psychiatric problems. Wiki, again:

In mid-1975, Ochs took on the identity of John Butler Train. He told people that Train had murdered Ochs, and that he, John Butler Train, had replaced him. Train was convinced that someone was trying to kill him, so he carried a weapon at all times: a hammer, a knife, or a lead pipe.

Ochs’ drinking became more and more of a problem, and his behavior became increasingly erratic…. [His] friends tried to help him. His brother Michael attempted to have him committed to a psychiatric hospital. Friends pleaded with him to get help voluntarily. They feared for his safety, because he was getting into fights with bar patrons. Unable to pay his rent, he began living on the streets.

After several months, the Train persona faded and Ochs returned, but his talk of suicide disturbed his friends and family. They hoped it was a passing phase, but Ochs was determined.

I take a breath and close my eyes. I see a girl standing in a crowded, chaotic theater lobby, clutching a guitar to her chest and brimming with a mission to save this man. I see this man, whose biology has already begun to betray him, whose brain will convince him in only a few short years that he’s been murdered, that his murderer has stolen his self.

Could any of his selves have heard her, then or ever?

Could my father?

 

 

 

BIO

Susan AvitzourSusan (Sara) Avitzour has published stories online and in the print anthology Israel Short Stories. Her full-length memoir, And Twice the Marrow of Her Bones, chronicles her daughter Timora’s struggle to lead a normal life as she battled leukemia, and her own journey first with, then without her daughter after Timora died at the age of eighteen.

This year she will receive a Master’s degree in English and Creative Writing from Bar-Ilan University, and is currently working on her first novel.

Born in Brooklyn, Susan moved to Israel in 1980 and settled in Jerusalem, where she and her husband raised seven children. Over the course of her adult life she worked as a lawyer, mediator, grant-writer, and translator. At the age of fifty, she returned to school to become a clinical social worker, and now practices as a psychotherapist.

 

 

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I Spy Cameras:
Intriguing Cameras of Intrigue

Story and Photos by Paul Garson – Cameras and documents from the author’s collection

 

francis x bushman

 

Shoot Bullets and Photos

Sometime in 1933 the famous screen actor/director Francis X. Bushman seen here came up with the idea of melding an actual gun with a camera that could shoot bullets as well as still and motion pictures as an aid to law enforcement. The idea was even if the bad guy escaped the bullets, he couldn’t avoid getting his mug shot taken and thus sealing his eventual captured. Something smaller and less noisy was needed by real world spies which prompted inventors around the globe to search for the perfect spy camera. As a result untold variations were created, a few literally shaping the history of nations and wars, cold and hot. As an offshoot, “spy camera” compact design eventually entered the consumer market, some basically toys, others hi-tech wonders. Here are a few from the author’s collection of vintage cameras, but only touching upon the tip of the spy iceberg.

 

TheHitwasit

The HIT – Was It?

If you were a kid growing up in the 1950s and read comic books, you saw an endless flow of ads, small ones, for The Hit…and you just had to have one because it was so “spyish” and cool. Your parents probably tried to explain that it was a toy and you couldn’t photograph a barn door with the Honey-I-Shrunk-a Real-35mm Camera. But no doubt you pressed on as I did until you had one. Okay, so it took 40 years before I added a Hit to my current collection and now you many find many for sale on the Internet, some with their original cases and even film. In any case, The Hit seems to remain on the hit list of spy cameras even if no self-respecting agent would use one.

The Hit was the product of the Tougodo Optical company founded in Japan in 1930 and named as things often were at the time after a military personage, in this case Admiral Tougo of the Japanese Navy. The camera relied on 14x14mm film.

Actually there are several variations of sub-mini 1950s cameras from Japan, the prices ranging from $10- $3,000 depending on their level of rarity. This one cost me $3 at a garage sale.

 

mec 16 camera

MEC-16 SB – History Maker in Miniature

The MEC 16 was produced by Germany’s Feinwerke Technik around 1957-60. This example, an SB was updated in 1960, and gained milestone status as the first TTL Camera (Through the Lens Metering system) by incorporating a Gossen Selenium Exposure Meter in its subminiature design, no mean feat as the camera in closed position measures only 4 x 2.5 x 1.5 inches. It utilizes a high quality Rodenstock f 2 22mm lens, making it one of the fastest subminis ever made. Its “Cats Eye” pupil diaphragm is adjustable f 2.0 to f16 with focal plane shutter speeds from 1/30 sec. to 1/1,000 sec. with a range of focus form 1ft. to infinity. Considered a top of the line “mini,” they are considered rare, prices reaching $250 and beyond.

 

universal 16 mm

Universal Minute 16

Produced apparently for only one year, 1949, it was designed to mimic the shape of a movie-camera. While certainly spyish in appearance and size and all metal in construction, the optical performance of the f6.3-11.0 Anastigmatic fixed-focus lens with a fixed shutter speed of 1/50 second, was mediocre at best. It did sport a pop-up viewfinder, flash synch and provided 14 exposures per magazine. A later version included an f8 lens and a slightly fast single speed of 1/60 second. Boxed sets include the camera, flash and spare bulbs, negative holders, tripod and film and still have good cool factor.

 

mamiya super 16

Mamiya Super 16

Post-war Japan produced a slew of high quality cameras of various formats and sizes. One major company, Mamiya, made 16mm subs from 1949-62 and judged as exceptional in design and performance. This model, appearing in 1959, was its built-in selenium meter is actually larger than the original Mamiya 16 that came without the meter. As far as being “automatic” it was actually a matter turning various dials that provided for a quality image. The lens was either an f2.8-16 25mm with speeds up to 1/200 sec. It was also the first Mamiya 16 with a flash shoe.( I got lucky and found this one for a grand total of $18.10. It pays to stay up to 3 in the morning scouring the Web.)

 

true spy camera

True Spy Camera

Popular with the KBG and other international espionage organizations up until the 1990s when digital took over, the incredible Minox was actually designed and first built in Riga, Latvia, then later in Germany. This example, a Minox-B literally fits in the palm of your hand at least without its various attachments as shown here including flash and binocular mount. Production started in 1958 and ran to 1969 when it was replaced by the improved Minox C, but it never surpassed the popularity of the Minox-B.

The Minox B features a Complan 15 mm f/3.58 4-element lens with shutter speeds of 1/2 – 1/1000 seconds with a focal range from infinity down to eight inches. A special braided metal chain allows for precise distance measurements for documents being photographed. The Minox B is capable of producing up to 50 photos using a single cartridge and still a highly usable camera, film and processing available, though not cheap.

 

norton univex camera

Norton/Univex/Universal Micro-Mini

There are miniature cameras, sub-miniatures and micro-miniatures…all based of course on size and weigh though not necessarily quality of images produced, such is the case of this camera that wore several brand names.

Founded in New York City in January 1933, The Universal Camera Corporation was the brainchild of loan company exec Otto Wolff Githens and his partner, taxicab insurance agent Jacob J. Shapiro, both believing Americans needed a very affordable camera. With that idea in mind, they approached the Norton Laboratories requesting they design a small Bakelite camera, simple to use, and cheap to manufacture. Naturally, seeing a good thing, Norton started selling the camera under their own name. Not giving up, the original Universal company went on to manufacture the Univex Model A themselves as well as several other cameras.

Although most people have no recollection of the camera today, Universal eventually sold more cameras per year than any other company in the world, at least for a time. Keeping to their prime directive of affordability, the Univex Model A sold for 39 cents with over 3 million purchases in the first three years. Boosting the sales was the inexpensive six-exposure rollfilm that was packaged in Belgium and sold for only 10 cents in the United States. 22,000,000 rolls where sold in 1938. However, it was the monopoly on the special Univex film that contributed to the collapse of the company in 1958.

 

micro 16 camera

Whittaker Micro 16

Described as the size of a deck of cards, it was actually much smaller and could be concealed inside a pack of cigarettes, apparently a popular combination with detectives of its day. Using 16mm film via a 24 exposure cartridge, it appeared on the “spy camera” scene in 1946, just after WWII’s end, the design of a Hollywood, CA concern named after its founder, It relied on an achromatic doublet f6.3 lens with fixed focus and a single speed although the aperture could be adjusted for lighting conditions and color film usage via 1:11 (bright), 1:8 (dull), and 1:6.3 (color). Production ended in 1950, a short run for the popular mini that sold for a relatively expensive $30 in the 1940s, about what people were earning on a weekly basis at the time. Today prices range from $25 to several hundred for very rare editions.

 

last camera

In closing, if you’ve got the bug for vintage cameras, small or larger, remember condition, condition, condition….and keep both eyes open on the Web, at garage sales and swap meets. You may just find that treasure. But remember, the value is in the history, the quest and the kinds of cameras that open wide your own apertures of interest. Do your research by surfing the Internet or purchase a couple quality camera collector books as resources. Happy hunting!

 

 

BIO

Paul Garson SelfiePaul Garson is a writer and photographer. He has contributed to many magazines and periodicals, and has published both fiction and nonfiction books as well as written two screenplays that have been produced. He served as a university instructor of composition and writing, as well as a martial arts instructor. His public relations and marketing projects included several for national and multinational companies.

His previous books include Album of the Dead, concerning WWII in Europe, available through Chicago Review Press, and New Images from Nazi Germany available through McFarland & Publishers.

 

Kyle Mustain

The Opposite of Suicide

By Kyle Mustain

 

DropCapMrockSmally first day as a substitute was six weeks after the second worst mass shooting by a single person in US history. This one took place in a school building, as many of them do anymore. There was a point during my second block, just after I had sent the students to work on their news-gathering quizzes in the computer lab—a secluded room off a small hidden hallway on the second floor of the building—when I asked myself, What would I do if there was a shooter?

I looked around the room, which had not changed much at all since I had gone to school here fifteen years ago. There was still a tube television hanging in the corner, a relic from when Channel One donated TVs to all of our public schools in the early 90s. The computers are all connected to the Internet, something perhaps less than a dozen computers in the school could do when I went here.

In this computer lab and the traditional classroom adjoining it, there seemed no obvious way to protect ourselves. We’d have to come up with something clever, like barricading the desks against the door, which swung out, not in, but the desks could block the shooter or shooters from entering the room, I guess. We’d have to hide along the walls, out of visibility from the door. But if the shooter came in from the door on the computer lab side, we’d be sitting ducks.

Maybe we could devise a way to climb down to the courtyard. The cord from the air conditioner—would it hold? It doesn’t seem too far a drop. We would have to risk broken legs just to get down to the courtyard, where the doors are locked, but made of glass. We’d have to break through them, then run out the front entrance to safety.

But how would I know it was safe on the first floor? There could be several intruders in the building, some of whom could be stationed at the front door to prevent us from escaping. Or the front entrance could be booby trapped. I wouldn’t know anything in that situation. I wouldn’t know what to do besides wait and hope the shooters don’t come into our room.

What if they did? I ask myself if I would stand in front of a gun for these young people.

 * * *

The problem was the scenario I was running through in my head was the one I’ve played out hundreds of times: two shooters, running through the hallways, tossing homemade bombs, firing sawed-off shotguns. I was eighteen when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went to their high school one Tuesday morning and proceeded to kill twelve of their classmates, one teacher, and injured twenty-four others.

The Columbine massacre was the first mass shooting of its kind. Not the first school shooting, by any means. Those happened quite frequently in the late nineties. But Harris and Klebold’s massacre was the first to play out over live TV. In real time. It happened on April 20th, which just so happens to be a pot-smoking holiday. Eric and Dylan’s attack on their high school and 4/20 was purely coincidental. So is the fact that Hitler’s birthday is April 20th. None of these things had anything to do with the other.

Harris was the brains behind the operation. He had been planning the massacre for eighteen months. It was supposed to happen on April 19th, the Monday after Prom. Eric and Dylan had to wait one extra day, though, for their friend to come through with one more box of bullets, and perhaps they also, understandably, had a case of cold feet. If the massacre had occurred on April 19th instead of April 20th, there would be no inclination of the media to speculate it had some cryptic link to Nazism or Weed.

Eric picked the date of April 19th, 1999 because it was the fourth anniversary of the largest domestic terrorist bombing in US history at the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. The Columbine massacre was never meant to be a school shooting. Eric and Dylan were equipped with guns just in case they had to shoot people, but their intention had always been to blow up the building. They wanted to outdo the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people. They hoped the bombs inside Columbine would kill hundreds more.

  * * *

After my first day as a sub I learned to relax. My teaching style, or “subbing” style, more accurately, is laid back. I moved back to my hometown during my last semester of grad school, and started doing this because the school district was hurting for subs. I never thought I would go into teaching, in fact I had terrible anxiety about it, but not seeing how else I was going to make a living, I registered. All that registering requires is a college degree, a $149 fee, and a background check. Criminal background check. They did not check my school records.

Just after that first day, I somehow came to be known as the “cool sub.” Probably because I’m young. Although I don’t consider 32 that young. It’s probably more because I act young. But I wonder if maybe it has something to do with my experience in high school.

I was outed when I was seventeen. I had only told a handful of friends and my immediate family about my sexuality, but after a few months, that little bubble of people could no longer contain such a large secret. My best friend told his other best friend, and then he told a group of guys who decided to use it to hurt me. They showed up to school early one day, approached several gossipy girls, and enlisted them to spread the word around school that my friend Chadand I were gay for each other. I knew about this ahead of time because they phoned me the night before to inform me “the whole school” was about to find out about me.

I don’t remember that day very clearly, as I’m sure no one under such duress would choose to hold on to such an experience. The only details I can recall are that by second period I started noticing people looking at me differently. By third period people who I usually said “Hey” to every day looked away from me. That much was to be expected, I guess. But what really took me by surprise was how the faculty reacted, which was exactly the same as the students—whispers and funny looks. From that day forward I was not taken seriously as a student anymore. That was how the remainder of my high school experience played out. This whole school turned its back on me.

I started skipping school. I got high all the time. I got in fights. I got suspended. I called a teacher a bitch to her face. I quit all my extracurricular activities.My grades didn’t just slump, they plummeted. After the first time I was arrested, the rest of my teachers were pretty much done with me. I became a pariah. My friends’ parents didn’t want them hanging out with me. I graduated early my senior year.

The thing is, I wasn’t alone. My class held the record for the most studentsto graduate at midterm from my high school. The school district responded the next year by changing the requirements for graduation, rendering it harder for students to graduate early, because it looked bad that so many of us wanted out of school. They did this instead of asking themselves why we fled.

My teenage years were a lot of seriously undue stress and bullshit. They really didn’t have to be. I was so disaffected by mine, I was on antidepressants from the age of 16 to 25. The other day I had to yell at a class to be quiet after the bell rang, and it dawned on me that ten years ago I would have been so numb from meds, raising my voice like that would have been a herculean effort for me. What I’m getting at is it took me years to become an adult. I spent the first half of my twenties getting over shit that happened to me in high school. It doesn’t have to be this way.

  * * *

The next time I subbed at the high school was two days after one of the senior class members got in his car under the influence of drugs and alcohol at eight-thirty in the morning on a Sunday and drove his car kamikaze-style down one of the busiest streets in town. Witnesses said he had to have been going over a hundred miles per hour by the point he lost control, ran off the road into a vacant parking lot, hit an embankment, went airborne, rolled and was ejected from the vehicle. He was declared dead four hours later at a nearby hospital.

Everyone was calling it a suicide. It had to have been. But why so close to graduation?

That was only my second time subbing at the high school, and it was for the same teacher. The first thing I did when I got in that morning was check to see if the young man who died had been in any of the classes I had subbed for. He hadn’t been, but the teacher had circled the photos of the students on the class roster who had been friends with him and left instructions that they had each taken the past couple days off school, that they were to be excused if they asked to go to the nurse, no questions asked. I noted to myself how they all kind of looked like him. Long hair, jaded. I mean jaded to the point it is humorous how unmistakable it is.

Who’s taking care of these kids?

  * * *

Eric and Dylan went into the building with their guns only after the large bombs they’d planted in the cafeteria didn’t detonate. Ideally the explosions would have caused the commons area over the cafeteria to collapse, burying the inhabitants inside. The bombs were supposed to cause structural damage and start fires throughout the building, killing hundreds within minutes. Eric and Dylan were going to perch themselves outside with their guns, and pick people off one by one as they tried to reach safety outside of the burning building.

Reading about Eric and Dylan, I see a lot of similarities between them and some guys I grew up with, who beginning in middle school started becoming outcasts. By the time we were in high school these guys and other guys and girls like them came together and they all gradually got into punk rock, thrash metal, death metal, hardcore hip-hop, hardcore techno, industrial, etc. Although these sub-genres of rock have their rivalries, they share the core emotion, which is anger; deep-seated anger that seeks to expose the injustices and hypocrisies of the system within which we live. That kind of cynicism is something that comes about once a person has been thrust outside the status quo.

This group of guys I knew started wearing black leather jackets. They decided since they were social outcasts, then their clothes had to be in open defiance of what our classmates wore.

In retrospect I realize they were part of the popular clique in the beginning of middle school, but as time progressed and cliques began to solidify, these guys were phased out of the clique. They used to get invited to all the popular parties, sit with us at sporting events, but then something just happened. A turn came about in middle school when these guys were no longer invited to things, and it totally wasn’t by their own volition. It was the popular kids deciding to not ask them around anymore. I think it was because they were considered not as good-looking, and a little too awkward around members of the opposite sex. Their tastes in movies, music, and popular culture were not as “advanced.” They were still into comic books and toys when other guys were making the shift to popular music, gold necklaces, and cologne. These guys got left behind. That scorn manifested into rage.

They acted out violently, but it was subdued. They started drinking at a younger age than everybody else, and drank more often. They mostly hung around each other, didn’t have much interest in traditional courtship rituals such as “going steady,” “Homecoming,” and “date rape.” They were just punks. A typical Friday night for them would have been a shared bottle of cheap vodka and some petty vandalism. Telling the world to go fuck itself.

That’s how Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and their group of friends were. That’s how they were treated by their peers, and that’s how they came to be that way. I see that all the time. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. People who go through that kind of ostracism from their peers, while they do suffer severe angst, it builds them into the people they will become. Many of these outsiders will use that pain to branch out from their peers. We need the radicals. We just need a better way of showing them they have a function in society. By we, I mean teachers. We must not make enemies of our outsider students.

  * * *

At the beginning of the new school year, a teacher requested for me to be his substitute for a week while he went out of state for his daughter to have a lifesaving surgery. I had by this point gained a glowing reputation with both students and teachers alike. It meant a lot to me that he thought to ask me to take over for him during such a sensitive time for his family. It was a weeklong subbing job, and I decided I was going to really devote myself to being an almost-full-time teacher.

Before the morning bell on the second day of the job, a student came into my classroom and asked me if I found his shirt offensive. It was brown-orange—the color of a basketball—and said in black letters: BALL EVERY DAY. A Nike Swoosh hung at the end of the sentence like a punctuation mark.

I thought it over. Testicle every day? I asked him in a protective way, “Are people calling you gay?”

He answered, “No.” He clearly didn’t see how the shirt was offensive, either.

“Then I don’t see anything wrong with it,” I told him.

Then he told me it was a teacher, not a student who was offended by the shirt. She told him to turn it inside-out. He asked me if he had to. I told him as long as he was in my class he didn’t have to. Then I rolled up my sleeves and told him an anecdote about the same thing happening to me when I was his age. I had worn a shirt that said WHAT THE HELL YOU LOOKING AT? to school several times, without bothering anyone. Most teachers didn’t even notice it. Some even thought it was funny. But all it took was one teacher who disagreed with the word “hell” and I wasn’t allowed to wear it to school anymore.

“So just lay low for the rest of the day,” I told him, “Make sure that specific teacher doesn’t see you again.” We had a laugh about it. I felt like we had established a bond.

As the first warning bell was sounding, the door at the back of the classroom swung open. The teacher from the next room was standing in the storage area that connected our classrooms. She’s a middle-aged woman I had found very accommodating over the past two days of the job. We’d even palled around a little between classes. She waved me over.

When I got to the back of the room, she leaned over and whispered, “Your student Diego is wearing a shirt that has a double entendre on it.” She sounded like she felt smart for using the term double entendre, like we were using some kind of secret adult code.

“Yeah, I saw, it,” I answered, “BALL EVERY DAY?”

“Yes!” she inflected outrage through her whisper-voice, and looked at me like I was supposed to feel outraged too.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t see it,” I told her.

She assured me, “It’s a double entendre. You’ve got to make him turn it inside-out.”

I couldn’t help making an annoyed face, because this was truly annoying. I knew she was wrong. But I nodded and said, “Okay.” I sent the poor guy to his counselor because it’s my job. I don’t have the authority to go up against an actual teacher.

A minute later I was suffering through the “Moment of Silence” and “Pledge of Allegiance.” Anyone with eyes and ears can scan a classroom and tell who is into it and who is not. The girl with the blond ponytail and the shirt with 1 JOHN 4:14 looks severely into “The Moment of Silence,” belts out “The Pledge.” The boy with the dark circles under his eyes and the CALL OF DUTY: BLACK OPS hoodie puts his head down reluctantly during “The Moment,” yawns through “The Pledge.”

Sometimes I look down during “The Moment,” out of respect for whatever it is I’m supposed to be paying respect to. Other times I walk silently about the room, handing out papers. I’m not in any violation. “The Moment of Silence” is not mandatory. I usually do “The Pledge,” although I don’t know why. Partly to check if I still have it memorized after all these years, but also because I like to analyze how aesthetically unappealing of poem it is—Is it even a poem? “The Pledge,” in its staccato cadence has a braiwashy vibe to it I didn’t catch onto when I was younger. Forcing people to say it every day sounds like something out of a Hitler Youth manual. Even if we don’t have to say it, the words get into our brains like a bad pop song.

I don’t remember having to say “The Pledge” after the fourth or fifth grade. There seems to have been a resurgence of interest in it after the turn of the century. There was no such thing as a daily “Moment of Silence” when I was student, either. These poor young people. I had it so much better than them.

All these two rituals do is create two minutes of awkwardness for the two thousand people standing in the school, parsing us into our ideological groups before we even have a chance to begin what should be the impartial process of education. They only take about two minutes, but these are the two minutes that start off our day.

I scanned the shirts people were wearing: Duck Dynasty, Sons of Anarchy, Monster Energy Drink, DRIVEN TO WIN, AINT NOBODY GOT TIME FOR THAT, SWAG OVER EVERYTHING. One girl was wearing a memorial t-shirt for the student who committed suicide the previous spring. The shirt of the boy next to her said NO TURNING BACK. Another had a drawing of a dog with a musical note coming out of its behind. The musical note was upside-down.

I located The School District’s Dress Code hangingon the wall behind me. It is posted in every classroom. And it’s vague. I’m guessing intentionally so. What constitutes pajamas? There was a girl right in front of me wearing a teal hoodie and gray sweatpants, which are essentially what I wear to bed in the winter. Should I bust her for looking like a slob? Why would someone do such a thing to someone else? To exert my power over her? Be an asshole just because I can?

The boy who had the BALL EVERY DAY shirt came back in with a shirt that had the high school mascot on it. It was creased like it just came out of a package. I gave him a sympathetic look. Oddly enough, just fifteen minutes before the incident, Diego and I had bumped into each other on the way to school. He had yelled out to me, “Hey, Mr. Mustain!” as he was crossing the street adjacent to me. We biked together for half a block. He asked what we were doing in class that day. “Just watching a movie,” I said, then apologized that I had to speed ahead because I was running late.

He seemed like a cool enough kid. I’m guessing his shirt meant he likes to play basketball every day because he enjoys it, even though he isn’t good enough to play on the school team. Plus he bikes to school. Hardly anyone does anymore. I’ve never seen more than ten bikes on the rack in front of the school. Ten people out of two thousand bike to school. Diego isn’t lazy.

I was pulling the TV cart away from the wall and putting the MythBusters DVD into the player when the vice principal showed up outside my door. I feigned a smile at her, and gave a, “What can I do for you, Ms. Fra—,” then corrected myself, “Mrs. Bennedetti.” I almost always call her by her maiden name, the name she went by when I was in school here.

She waved me over without making a sound. That’s a surefire way to clue everyone in on the fact that she has something to say to me that the students aren’t allowed to hear.

“I just received an e-mail from Mrs. Frega telling me that one of your students was wearing a T-shirt that has a double entendre on it.”

FUCK MY LIFE

“Uh-huh.”

“Did you make him turn it inside-out?”

“He asked to go to his guidance counselor. When he came back he was wearing a different t-shirt.”

“Okay, great! Thanks for helping out!” She always tells me, “Thanks for helping out!” whenever she sees me. It makes me feel like I don’t actually work here.

She came from the office, in the front of the school, to the science hall, which is in the back of the building, just to make sure I, the substitute, was following orders.

After Vice Principal Bennedetti left, I turned on the Mythbusters DVD, and headed to the back of the room with my coffee thermos and notebook. I started recording everything that had just transpired because I was fuming pissed. I put two things together from Mrs. Bennedetti’s visit to my classroom. Number one, Mrs. Frega must have e-mailed her with concern that I was not being compliant. Number two was that Mrs. Bennedetti might have come to dig up old grudges with me.

I sat in the back of the room so the students couldn’t see how tense I was. I was holding myself back from overturning the table, screaming, maybe even bursting into tears. Instead I sat and stewed and couldn’t help but stare at the back of a young girl’s bright orange t-shirt saying to me: WHAT KIND OF A PERSON ARE YOU?

  * * *

Eric Harris was a psychopathic murderer with a god-complex. Dylan Klebold was a depressive who sometimes lashed out violently. Eric was a charismatic manipulator who told people exactly what they wanted to hear. Dylan wanted to be noticed. He wanted to fall in love, got his heart broken over and over again. Eric wanted to fuck girls. Eric hated everyone, probably even Dylan. Dylan planned to commit suicide. Eric wanted to annihilate mankind. Dylan had brown hair. Eric was blond. Dylan was good at a lot of things, among them writing stories. Eric was a genius.

I was a depressive. I laid in bed for hours at a time listening to sad songs on repeat. I was addicted to sadness. All I wanted was for someone to understand me. Every time I reached out to someone I thought maybe did, it ended in more disappointment. I realized I was gay by the age of twelve, but I tried to push it out of my thoughts. I felt guilty about it. Thought I could overcome it. I thought I was going to go to hell. Getting over that self-hatred is a process that takes several years. There is no doubt in my mind that has a long-term effect on a person’s psyche.

The night after the whole world found out I was gay I went up to my room, turned off the lights, unplugged my alarm clock and VCR to make the room the darkest it could get. I laid under the covers, crying in cold sweat. I wanted to kill myself. But that wasn’t really anything new. I had been having that fight with myself off and on since the age of twelve, and I’d gotten quite good at talking myself out of it. Although this time the pressure was more extreme, more public. I guess it would have made a statement if I killed myself, but that felt too much like what people would have expected from me. Like, oh god, the guys who outed me would have to live the rest of their lives with that terrible thing hanging over their heads. But who would be the real loser in that situation? Me! I still wanted to fucking live, damn it! That would have sucked for my family too, but really at that moment I was probably thinking my family could go fuck themselves, too. All that mattered was what was going on in my life, at that very moment, and how I was going to get out of it alive.

I probably spent at least an hour fantasizing about taking guns to school. My dad has several. I knew where he hid them and where he kept the bullets. That would have been really fucking easy. In fact, it would be so fucking easy to shoot up a school it’s a fucking joke. I laid there going over the fantasy in my head, playing it over and over in different scenarios. Which door should I go in? Which hallway would I see the most people I hated? Was I going to kill just Nate and Scott, or should I go all-out and try to take out as many people as I could? I would have to—just have to—take out the administrators. Otherwise what would be the point?

Every time I went over it, it got more and more complicated. There was no way it would have transpired as good as the way it worked in my dark little day dreams. I knew how that all worked out, the fantasizing of things. The two times I’d had sex were revolting, awkward affairs, nowhere near as good as the hundreds of suave, silky scenarios I’d been masturbating to for the better part of a decade. The two times I’d had sex were so bad I never thought back to them, pushed them far into the deep catacombs of my mind. I understood that fantasies are idealized realities. Perfection is a fantasy. That’s what makes fantasies so special over reality: we can perfect them, easily. Reality takes hard work if you want to realize your fantasies, or at least come close.

In bed that night I understood shooting up the school was going to take a lot of hard work and planning. I’d have to learn to use a gun, build bombs, rehearse, and get my body in shape and shit. I’d have to enlist some friends to help out, and all that seduction over to the dark side shit would have taken a lot of mental preparation. It was a long term solution for a short term problem.

As I was still lying in the pitch dark of my room, I forced myself to start thinking more positively. There had to be a better way out of this; a way to knock those bastards on their asses and dispel the rumor about me. It’s hard to explain sparks of inspiration, where they come from. I think lying there in bed and going through all the bloody scenarios, the really dark shit, was necessary for me to gradually climb up out of and find the positive solution.

As the plan started to come together in my mind, I sat up in bed, after what was probably two hours of sulking. I switched on the lights, plugged my appliances back in, and got to work.

  * * *

Nearing the end of the first block it dawned on me what the boldest, most fitting course of action should be: I should ask Diego if I can buy the BALL EVERY DAY shirt from him.

Do I put it on right then? No, I better take it home and wash it. Wear it tomorrow? No, I have two more days on this subbing job. I need this whole paycheck. Friday. I’ll put it on just before first block begins. The students will love it. By second block they’ll spread it around. “Mr. Mustain is wearing a t-shirt that a teacher told a student he couldn’t wear!” How fast will the teachers start reporting me? Will the principal come during second or third block, or will I make it all the way to fourth? Will he pull me out of class and replace me with a faculty member or an administrator? Will they bring the police? Will I be led out of school in handcuffs?

I don’t put anything past them.

There will be an article in the newspaper. Reporters will call me for a statement. Will it go beyond the town? National news? Bill O’Reilly? Rachel Maddow?

Before anything like that happens, I’ll have to deal with the town. Immediate firing. That I can count on. But then there would be the public shunning. I’ll probably have to cancel my membership to the YMCA after all the scornful looks and fathomable vandalism to the things in my locker. I know those gestures won’t hurt me or bother me as much as the looks of sympathy I’d get from other people; people who agree with me, but don’t want to stand by me; not what I did.

I can’t do it. I need this job too badly.

I resign to push it down. Think of the money. Pick your battles. Forget about it and think about the lesson plans for the next two days. I’ll look for another job. Maybe this frustration is a sign it’s time to move on. Maybe I’m not cut out for this.

The back of that girl’s fucking shirt keeps asking me:

WHAT KIND OF A PERSON ARE YOU?

            * * *

All three of us were journal writers. Eric called his “The Book of God.” Dylan titled each of his entries individually, and were structured like mine: name, date and title in the righthand margin, then title again, centered above the text. I titled mine, “Final Thoughts,” a morbid joke that they all would add up to one epic suicide note.

I want to say we just wrote about the same themes, that I didn’t go to the extreme Eric did, but the thing is I explored my dark side thoroughly. So did a lot of my friends. In fact I’m willing to bet most adolescent boys have secret projects. One student showed me YouTube videos of some BMX ramps he and his friends built. That reminded me of when my younger brother and his friends made improvised horror films and one summer even built a wrestling ring complete with ropes in our parents’ backyard. Some of my friends in high school found a bunch of dead squirrels and made a funny video of a hand puppet beating them up. They would show it at parties. Those are all ways we burned off some innate hunger for violence. Sure some of them were unsettling, but they were within the bounds of reason.

Eric was really into the German hardcore techno band KMFDM[1]. Eric and Dylan may have listened to Marilyn Manson, but his music had nowhere near the influence over them that the media made it out to be. That gives Marilyn Manson way too much credit. Come on. Eric and Dylan were too smart to buy into that.

I’ve been listening to the early KMFDM albums Eric and Dylan would have listened to. The lyrics seem very pointed. If I had to hazard a guess, the lyrics of their first album must be directed at a handful of specific individuals. The same as Eric or Dylan’s journals would have been. The same as most people’s journals are at that age. When a person writes a love poem, it is generally towards one person, right? We’ve all had unrequited love, right? So when one writes rage poems, they must be no different. They are probably very often towards a specific target. Can we call it unrequited rage? How about unfulfillable rage? Somebody you never got to kill or do some kind of terrible harm to, whether physical or psychological. I don’t see this as being indicative of psychopathic behavior. I think it’s venting. It’s channeling rage into creative energy. It’s sublimation. Isn’t this is why we create art;to feel like we have obtained things which are unobtainable?

Because I am a writer, I wrote. Because I am a depressive, I didn’t share my stories. But I wanted the world to end, thought everyone needed to die so I could start humanity over again, my way. I just never took it to the next level. I wanted to kill people, but I have never killed anyone. I never even got as far as plotting a murder. I grew out of it. It wore off. Somehow. But what I can’t help wondering about, sifting through all the information I can gather about Dylan and Eric, is what series of events could have possibly led to me deciding to make my fantasy a reality? What would have pushed me over to fully functioning homicidal artist?

  * * *

In the hall the other day a young man walked by me, mimed like he was holding a shotgun, took aim at me through his sites, then threw his shoulders back from the imaginary gun’s blowback. His lips puckered, let out a “poof.” This is not even a student who I’ve had to discipline. This is one of the ones I get along with.

Some students joked about finding their Math teacher’s house and toilet papering it. He joked back, “If you do find my house, let me warn you, I do support the Second Amendment.” He more or less told a group of 14 year-olds that he would shoot them if they came on his property and threatened to ruin his Saturday.

The school secretary and Bennedetti were excited, describing the reconstruction of the high school in the next town over. These two were gawking out, jaws agape, eyes wide. I asked what the big deal was. The secretary answered, “All of the hallways are going to be curved.”

“Well that sounds pretty fancy,” I said, expecting this to be a discussion of the artistry of interior design.

The secretary added, “It’s so the shooters won’t have a straight shot at anyone.”

I looked puzzled.

“So when people are running from them, they will be going along the curve instead of straight. They’ll keep turning and it will be harder for the shooters to aim.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day wasted 5-10 minutes of every class in the entire school district. It came off as a shameless PR ploy by the School Board in the weeks following the George Zimmerman verdict to proclaim: “We’re not racists.” The school board is composed of middle-aged, upper middle-class white people.

We spend more time telling kids to stay away from drugs, alcohol, and smoking than we do teaching them how to identify the lower half of the periodic table of elements.

When teaching a shop class a student asked me in front of the entire class what kind of cigarettes I smoke. I made a snap judgement, decided that I admired his boldness, and gave him an answer. Then I asked him which brand he smoked, and everyone in the class announced which brands they liked. We discussed the qualities of all the different brands. I urged them if they had the extra money, to get American Spirits because they lacked the harmful additives other tobacco companies put into their cigarettes, but I understand how expensive they are. The rest of that block went smoothly. I won them over by not pretending to be something I’m not, something above them. They respected me for my candor.

I noticed a boy texting one day. He asked what my cellphone policy was. The school’s cellphone policy is gestapo-esque. Something like I’m supposed to seize it from him. Second offense is automatic suspension. Each teacher has her own policy, though. We had just taken a test and had literally nothing to do to fill up the rest of class time, so I really didn’t care. Why not let them play around? Why jump to the assumption they’re doing something sinister with them? I’ve seen just as many students reading the news on their phones or exploring Reddit as I have playing video games. I have never caught a student watching porn.

Then he said to me, “I’m actually texting my mom.” That seemed unexpected, but it was better than his buddy waiting outside with the artillery.

What was he texting his mom about? That morning on his drive to school he thought he saw his friend out of the corner of his eye, sitting in the shotgun seat next to him. He had been friends with the boy who killed himself last spring.

He had hesitated telling me, but for some reason decided I was someone he could tell this to. He had hair down to his neck, black baggy jeans with a chain wallet, and the emblem of some alien-themed band on his charcoal shirt. He told me he sees his friend all the time and it freaks him out. “What does it mean?” he asked me.

I told him, “Just the other day, I thought of something really funny that my good friend and I used to say. An inside joke we had, right? Well, I pulled my phone out of my pocket, and I was just about to text him when I realized I don’t even have him in my contacts. He committed suicide twelve years ago. He died before there even was such a thing as text messaging, and yet the other day I tried to send him a text. I guess what I’m saying, man, is it never really goes away.” I gave him the best possible answer I could give him, which was the one that was not fully thought out.

I haven’t talked to him since that day, but I see him in the halls every now and then. He usually looks pretty happy. A young person’s mood can switch on and off like a light bulb, though. I remember that. I have no way of knowing if what I said that day helped him. I just wait for moments like that to happen.

            * * *

Brooks Brown was Dylan Klebold’s best friend until Eric Harris moved to Columbine in middle school. For a while they were a threesome, but Eric didn’t like Brooks, and a tug-of-war was waged over Dylan. Brooks remained on-again, off-again friends with the pair in the intervening years, but it was clear Eric had won Dylan.

After the massacre, Brooks was contacted by a young journalist named Rob Merritt, who felt empathetic to Brooks’ plight to get his story out about Eric and Dylan. Three years after the attack they published a book about Columbine from his point of view. It’s a fascinating dynamic these two have. Merritt is four or five years older than Brooks, Eric and Dylan, so he was not far removed from the experience of high school when the attack occurred. And he seems to have the same taste in popular culture and worldview as them (Insane Clown Posse is mentioned a lot).

Merritt’s teaming up with Brown doesn’t feel exploitive. Instead the book reads like a better-educated, better-connected older brother, just a few years more mature than the younger brother, coming in to lend a hand and help him tell his story in a structured, presentable manner. It’s biased as hell, but how could it not be? Brooks was indirectly involved in the massacre just from being good friends with Eric and Dylan. He was notoriously the only person Eric told to leave before they planted the bombs in the cafeteria. Eric spared him because he was a kindred soul.

If you want a clearer picture of what was going on with Eric and Dylan, then you cannot ignore what Brooks has to say:

 

“The problem was that the bullies were popular with the administration. Meanwhile, we were the ‘trouble kids’ because we didn’t seem to fit in with the grand order of things. Kids who played football were doing what you’re supposed to do in high school. Kids like us, who dressed a little differently and were into different things, made teachers nervous. They weren’t interested in reaching out to us. They wanted to keep us at arm’s length, and if they had the chance to take us down, they would.”

  * * *

He describes a school where teachers got swept up in the jock-nerd-normal-freak-popular-unpopular-cool-uncool paradigm, and argues that while Eric and Dylan were responsible for their own atrocious actions, “Columbine [was] responsible for creating Eric and Dylan.”

Brown and Merritt spend a lot of time speculating about “The Basement Tapes.” The police confiscated videotapes with approximately three hours of footage of Eric and Dylan outfitting themselves, testing out their weapons, and leaving behind testimonials explaining why they were going to attack the school. The Basement Tapes—named because most of the footage was shot in their basements—have never been released to the public. Only select members of the press have seen them, and Brooks Brown’s mother and father, who were not invited to the screening, but barged their way in, threatening court action if they were not allowed to watch.

The Jefferson County sheriff’s department’s transcripts of The Basement Tapes can now be found online, but the entire footage still remains locked away. This is a description of part of the second Basement Tape from the Rocky Mountain News “War Is War,” December 13, 1999:

They explain over and over why they want to kill as many people as they can. Kids taunted them in elementary school, in middle school, in high school. Adults wouldn’t let them strike back, to fight their tormentors, the way such disputes once were settled in schoolyards. So they gritted their teeth. And their rage grew. “It’s humanity,” Klebold says, flipping an obscene gesture toward the camera. “Look at what you made,” he tells the world. “You’re fucking shit, you humans, and you deserve to die.” … They speak at length about all the people who wronged them. “You’ve given us shit for years,” Klebold says. “You’re fucking going to pay for all the shit. We don’t give a shit because we’re going to die doing it.”

  * * *

Eric and Dylan planned to die in the attack.

This is Brooks’ description of the video, secondhand from his mother’s account of it:

Dylan asks Eric if he thinks the cops will listen to the entire video. Eric replies that he believes the cops will chop the video up into little pieces, “and the police will just show the public what they want it to look like.” They suggest delivering the videos to TV stations right before the attack. After all, they want people to know that they feel they have reasons.

“We are but aren’t psycho,” they say.

Dylan promises his parents that there was nothing they could have done to stop him. According to the Rocky Mountain News article “War Is War,” “You can’t understand what we feel,” he says. “You can’t understand, no matter how much you think you can.”

The Rocky Mountain News quoted Eric as offering praise for his parents. “My parents are the best fucking parents I have ever known,” he says. “My dad is great. I wish I was a fucking sociopath so I don’t have any remorse, but I do. This is going to tear them apart.They will never forget it.”

According to police reports, Eric expresses regret on another tape as well. He recorded one segment while driving alone in his car. “It’s a weird feeling, knowing you’re going to be dead in two and a half weeks,” he says to the camera. He talks about the co-workers he will miss, and says he wishes he could have revisited Michigan and “old friends.” The officer who viewed this tape wrote that, “at this point he becomes silent and appears to start crying, wiping a tear from the side of his face…[H]e reaches toward the camera and shuts it off.”

Their final tape is less than two minutes long. Eric, behind the camera, tells Dylan, “Say it now.”

“Hey, Mom. Gotta go,” Dylan says to the camera. “It’s about half an hour before our little judgment day. I just wanted to apologize to you guys for any crap this might instigate as far as [inaudible] or something. Just know that I’m going to a better place than here. I didn’t like life too much and I know I’ll be happier wherever the fuck I go. So I’m gone.”

  * * *

They sound as if they had reached enlightenment. They believed they were dying for a just cause. I believe the reason the Basement Tapes have never been shown to the public is because Eric and Dylan show remorse for what they are about to do.

  * * *

Are you married? Do you have a girlfriend? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you want a boyfriend?

That’s the string of questions I get, an algorithm they’ve designed to figure out what kind of a person I am. I know it isn’t designed specifically to discover if I’m gay, but that is one of the possible outcomes. I like to think Brad, a student teacher who is 10 years younger than me, has it easy because he’s engaged to a female. But then I realize their algorithm would just lead to dozens of annoying questions about his fiancé. So maybe I am better off.

Note to self: Come up with clever, condescending answer to the question, “Do you want a boyfriend?” I get extra points if the answer is condescending because if my answer makes the question seem silly, it will cause everyone to laugh, thus putting an end to the line of questioning. I get asked about my tattoo and earrings on a daily basis. It took me six months to come up with this: “Is that a tattoo?” “No, it’s an ink bracelet.”

It’s only a matter of time before someone wises up and asks, “Have you ever had a boyfriend?” I don’t know what I would answer if a student asked me that. Do I wait to cross that bridge when I come to it, or do I prepare an answer? Why am I putting off coming up with an answer? WHAT KIND OF A PERSON AM I?

A student asked me straight-up if the teacher I was subbing for smokes pot. I told him I didn’t know her that well. When I recounted this story to my mother, she said what she would have said was, “Even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you.” I don’t like that answer—even though it did pop into my head—because it implies that I do know. I think if Ms. X does smoke pot, then there are very few colleagues who know about it, if any. A teacher busted with marijuana would be an automatic firing, likely a career-ender. Whereas in my case, being gay is no longer a crime, but the ice on the slope upon which I tread is both thin and slippery.

I read a recent story about a cross country coach in Colorado who came out of the closet to his school board. They told him he could keep his coaching job, on the condition he no longer go into the men’s locker room while the male team members were dressing. This coach was forced to change in a men’s room separate from the locker room until the assistant coach, who identified as straight, came to tell him all the male team members were fully clothed.

I don’t understand things like that. If I go to the YMCA they don’t have a separate locker room for gay men and women. I have had to teach gym classes, and it has been expected of me to watch over the men’s locker room. Every time I think to myself, If the people in charge knew about me, they wouldn’t want me doing this. At the same time I’m also thinking, I’m not a pervert.

Young people have changed, I suppose. Highlights, earrings, hipster attire. All of the things that elicited catcalls of faggot in my day, that only the brave dared adorn in the name of fashion and individuality, are now commonplace and perhaps even worse, crafted by moms. Sure the adolescents now have been brought up in the “information age” and therefore “interface” with the world more than they experience it. They’re exposed to more sexually graphic and violent media than any generation before them. If you just talk to them, though, you’ll find out they’re not that different than we were. I don’t think anyone looked at my class in the 90s and said, “Yep, they’re exactly like the students in the 80s, 70s, 60s. Not a single thing has changed.”

The generation I am teaching have been watching Glee for the past four years, were brought up on reruns of Will & Grace. It’s not uncommon for students to come out as early as middle school. Teachers have told me to “keep an eye out” for same-sex couples holding hands, that if I catch them kissing I’m supposed to enforce the same rules we have for everybody. These teachers roll their eyes about it, say these students are simply going through “phases;” trying to get attention and piss off their parents. It’s the equivalent of what was said about interracial couples when I was in high school, which is now much more common.

I just don’t know where my place is, as a substitute. I’m not going to run into classes and announce I’m gay. But what if something gay comes up, topically, during class? Can I talk to them about my experiences as a gay man? Can I point out gay subtext in books? Or when I know an author is gay? Or historical figures? No one has ever had this conversation with me.

Let me explain how my job works. If a teacher has called in sick during the evening or early morning, the school district’s personnel coordinator will call me between six and seven-AM and ask if I am available to sub that day. We also schedule ahead of time, if a teacher has requested time off. The more I answer my phone in the morning and show that I am reliable, the more the personnel director will continue calling me. The more I teach and have favorable comments made about me from students, teachers, teaching aides, and front office workers, whomever it is I work with, the more I get called for work. My job is dependent upon my performance.

I feel good about giving back to the community. I find it immensely rewarding to help educate young people. What frightens me is ever losing my job for censorship reasons. For misspeaking. For my sociopolitical and religious beliefs, and having those misconstrued as trying to spread “perversion.”

I have a gay friend who was a teaching aide in this district just ten years ago. Some students found his online dating profile. He had listed himself as “Interested In Men.” This profile did not say anything about looking for sexual encounters. There were no photos of him naked or even shirtless. Simply listing himself as looking for a relationship with another man was enough for the school to ask him for his resignation. I just don’t know if I could handle that. Or maybe coming to that is the inevitable conclusion for this job.

I’ve heard of two high school teachers telling their classes extremely homophobic things. One told her class that homosexuality is a perversion equal to bestiality. Another told her students that homosexuals go to hell. Teachers who know well enough that many of their past and present students are gay. Some of them screaming-gay.

To the best of my knowledge, I only had one gay teacher. This individual stayed in the closet for his/her entire career. It wasn’t until the last two or three years before retirement that he/she finally opened up his/her private life to some of the faculty. Up until that point, I had always been led to believe it was an open secret. We all knew it, both students and faculty. It was just never directly addressed, unless we were making fun of him for being a fudge-packer who liked getting his fudge packed by other fudge-packers.

I get standoffish with my male students. Let’s say one takes a liking to me, wants to get to know more about me, during periods of downtime in class will stand next to my desk and want to chitchat with me. I become evasive. I’ll suddenly have other things which require my attention. I’ll act like I’m not interested in talking to him. This is because I don’t want anything to be misconstrued, even retroactively. Say like two weeks or two months or two years from now, the student finds out that I am gay and he could start to reform his memories of our chats and hear words that were not said, inflections that were not inflected.

I guess I’m afraid of the rumors starting again. How good are people’s memories, anyway? Not many of the teachers here were teaching when I was in school. Nobody has said anything to me about it. What happened to me fifteen years ago.

  * * *

The rumor Nate and Scott spread around the school was that my friend Chad and I were gay for each other. If I was going to retaliate, I had to include Chad in my plan because they slurred his name, too. Thing was, while I was actually gay, Chad wasn’t. We had been seen flirting, sure, so that was a reasonable conclusion for Nate and Scott to jump to, but Chad and I both knew it just wasn’t his thing. But, still, the rumor included him, and therefore any retaliation had to include him.

The easy way to go about fighting back would have been to spread an equally nasty rumor about Nate and Scott. Not only did I not have any dirt on them, I felt spreading more rumors would only exacerbate their animosity toward me.

What I really needed was a way to dispel the rumors about Chad and me that would also call Nate and Scott out on their shady tactic of attacking us with gossip. I wanted to call bullshit not just on the rumor, but on gossip in the grander sense. They could say anything they wanted to about me. People talk, but it’s everyone’s choice of whether to listen to gossip. The only way to know a person is to talk and interact with him.

I called Chad and pitched him my idea. We had to throw this back in their faces. Yeah, it would blow over in time, but if we were going to do something about it, now was the time. We had to strike. I wanted to do something that would get the whole school to pay attention. I wanted to make a statement.

I went out and bought two white T-shirts, and a big black marker.

The thing that surprised me was, everybody got it. People were running up to me in the hallways, asking to see the shirt, telling me to turn around and show the back. High fives, hugs. If we’d had digital cameras back then, people would have been taking photos with me. I was the most talked-about person in school for two consecutive days: one that branded me a pariah; the next I was a brave, clever, funny kid with a positive message to give the world. I walked the halls with my head held high. I smiled so much that day I could have died.

A few teachers stopped and asked to see my shirt. Most shook their heads and rolled their eyes at me. Some said they thought it was great, high-fived me. A couple of them stood together, deliberating what they should do about it, but I kept winning. The only teacher I thought I had to worry about was Mrs. Loomis, my Trigonometry teacher. We had been butting heads all year. She called me to the front of her class and asked to see the shirt. Of course I took the opportunity to show it off to the room, and gave my little speech. In large letters, covering the entire front it said: I’M STRAIGHT . . . and on the back it said . . .  CHAD ISN’T.

Mrs. Loomis asked, “Does this ‘Chad’ person know about this?” I assured her he did, and in fact he was wearing a shirt that said: I’M STRAIGHT. . . . . . KYLE ISN’T. I told her we were demonstrating against rumors. She looked annoyed, but couldn’t find anything offensive about the shirt, so she left me alone.

If I had written on the shirt, “I’m not gay…Chad is,” the word “gay” might have been too shocking. I had learned from my experience sophomore year with the teacher telling me to turn my shirt inside-out because it had the word “hell” on it. There would likely be a faculty member who found the word “gay” to be dirty, so I flipped the phrase. Also, Chad and I wearing shirts that said the same thing about each other had a canceling effect. We were both in on the joke, not attacking each other.

  * * *

Author Dave Cullen spent ten years writing Columbine, the most comprehensive account of the before, during, and after of the massacre. The book follows the stories of Dr. Fuselier, an FBI investigator whose son attended Columbine High School, and went on to put together a massive report on Harris and Klebold; Dave Sanders, the one teacher killed in the attack, who saved countless people that day; the brave principal Frank DeAngelis, who has remained at the school and retired in the spring of 2014; some of the injured students; and of course the killers themselves. But there is a conspicuous lack of teacher’s impressions of Eric and Dylan. Many moved after the massacre and understandably wanted to put it behind them.

Brooks Brown’s role in the story is underplayed by Cullen. This may be because he didn’t want to cover too much of what was already in Brown’s memoir, but there is unmistakable tension between Cullen and Brown underlying the text. He makes Brooks out to be a tattletale. When Dylan was unsure whether he wanted to go through with the bombing, he leaked information to Brooks because he knew he and his interfering mother would go to the police. Nothing ever came of their many attempts to get the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department to investigate Eric. After the massacre a search warrant for Eric Harris’s house was discovered, made out in full, but was never taken to a judge to be signed. Cullen mentions this, but doesn’t pay much respect to the Browns as the only people in the community who identified Eric as an unstable person, ready to blow any moment. Instead Cullen makes Brooks Brown out to be a media whore, overplaying the “bullying” factor in the killers’ motives.

Fuselier was fascinated with Eric’s journals. They were used as the primary documents to diagnose Eric as a psychopath. Cullen doesn’t question this diagnosis in his book. It is the popular conclusion the psychological community has signed off on. This is preposterous to begin with because how can you diagnose a person with such an extreme personality disorder without having met him? I have not been able to find anything suggesting Dr. Fuselier did any outside research. Did it ever occur to him to listen to KMFDM, and to analyze their song lyrics?

To get you to the point I’m trying to make, let me illuminate for you one more similarity between Dylan and myself: We were both big fans of the industrial band Nine Inch Nails. Dylan especially liked The Downward Spiral, which is bandleader Trent Reznor’s concept album about a protagonist contemplating, then ultimately committing suicide.

If you read my private writings from when I was a teen through my early twenties, I seemed to have adapted the style of Reznor: bleak, melodramatic, self-obsessed, yearning to find a connection to the outside world, while keeping it at arm’s length. That’s how Dylan felt. Of course the music did not cause us to feel that way. He and I were drawn to Nine Inch Nails because we already felt that way. Music helps us explore emotions that we are already experiencing.

If you were to read Eric’s journals and KMFDM’s lyrics side by side, you would find a lot of similarities. Yes, these were Eric’s original thoughts, but he was copying the aesthetic of KMFDM. His journals take on similar structure and themes, the same as Dylan and I were copying Trent Reznor’s.

A person of average intelligence will memorize a song, may write out the lyrics verbatim, the way they were given to him. A person of above average intelligence will emulate the style of song lyrics and structures to write their own.

I am in no way endorsing the theory that violent music is responsible for Eric and Dylan’s actions. If it hadn’t been KMFDM and Nine Inch Nails, they could have just as easily been reading Dante’s Inferno, Faust, or could have found violence within the music of Beethoven or Wagner. To attack art would be to attack a mirror. What I’m trying to say is Dr. Fuselier came up short for not having caught onto the fact that Eric’s rantings were invoking a style of lyricism. Eric was writing poetry. He was creating art.

Was Eric truly a psychopath? Why do I have such a hard time labeling him that? It’s because the more I look into it, the less I believe there even is such a thing as psychopathy. A recent article in Scientific American caught my attention. It’s about a new school of thought about the Belief in Pure Evil (BPE), and how it affects a person’s ethics:

According to this research, one of the central features of BPE is evil’s perceived immutability. Evil people are born evil – they cannot change. Two judgments follow from this perspective: 1) evil people cannot be rehabilitated, and 2) the eradication of evil requires only the eradication of all the evil people. Following this logic, the researchers tested the hypothesis that there would be a relationship between BPE and the desire to aggress towards and punish wrong-doers.

  * * *

Researchers have found support for this hypothesis across several papers containing multiple studies, and employing diverse methodologies. BPE predicts such effects as: harsher punishments for crimes (e.g. murder, assault, theft), stronger reported support for the death penalty, and decreased support for criminal rehabilitation. Follow-up studies corroborate these findings, showing that BPE also predicts the degree to which participants perceive the world to be dangerous and vile, the perceived need for preemptive military aggression to solve conflicts, and reported support for torture.

  * * *

Psychopathy is defined as a personality disorder which includes antisocial behavior, diminished capacity for empathy or remorse, little control over behavior, and superiority complex. They say psychopaths (which is interchangeable with “sociopath”), while lacking the human emotions of sorrow, sadness, empathy, learn at an early age how to imitate these in order to live alongside fellow human beings. Doesn’t that describe everyone?

Eric was not a psychopath until after he had already killed thirteen people and himself. Before that he was just a boy. With a strict father he loathed but respected. A mother he loved tenderly, but also found annoying. He hated the world. Hated everyone except for people who agreed with his worldview. There weren’t any, really. He probably didn’t even like Dylan that much, but knew from the start he could manipulate him. In a way Dylan was his first pipe bomb. Did Eric believe in God? I know he did. He thought he was godlike and that only he and God truly understood the world.

Eric wanted anarchy. He wanted us all to start killing each other, to arm ourselves to the teeth, to suspect our neighbors of trespasses against us, to prepare for war within our own borders, against each other. That message was received, loud and clear. Well done, Eric.

Empathy is a learned behavior. Some people may be harder to teach than others, but that doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and say it’s pointless to try. That’s the current philosophy of our education system. We target those who are good at subjects and those who are bad, and set our focus on them, leaving the ones in the middle alone. We don’t put forth the intensity or the manpower it would require to teach everyone equally. A system that should be a stronghold of egalitarianism has been rendered a socially Darwinistic and paranoid-survivalistic state.

We need to quit being afraid of each other, to show our children how to be fearless. Instead of fortifying our schools to keep people out, we need to start letting more people in.

  * * *

After that day Nate and Scott buried their grudge against me. I heard through the grapevine that Nate decided if I was willing to go that far, then it wasn’t worth his time to mess with me anymore. Things settled down after that. People sifted through the rumors, though, and eventually came around to the truth. Nate, Scott, and the friends I’d come out to assured people I really was gay, but they had been mistaken about Chad. The rumors about Chad going away were also aided by the fact he was going around telling people I was the gay one and he didn’t know how he got roped into the rumor. He even got some of the girls he had slept with to “vouch” for him.

Eventually I realized that on the day of the t-shirts, I hadn’t seen Chad at all since I gave him a ride to school and we put the shirts on in my van. He had taken different routes to his classes to avoid me. Later I got it out of him that, “It was too cold to wear just a t-shirt that day.” He had covered it up with a sweatshirt. He still “technically” wore it. Like that meant anything.

Things did not get better. People quit inviting me to parties. The mutual friends I had with Nate and Scott had to decide who they were going to hang out with. It wasn’t so much a question of loyalty as it was whether they wanted to hang out with the cool guys, or the gay guy who took things a little too far.

The rumor happened about three weeks after I had come out to my family. When Scott called me to warn me “the whole school” was about to find out I was gay, I told my parents about it. We discussed possibly dropping out and getting a GED, maybe going to live with my uncle and enrolling in school there. I decided I would brave it out. I didn’t want to “run away from my problems.” But now when I think back, returning to that school day after day did something to me.

The next fall I went back to school a broken person. I quit all of my activities. Classes were a joke to me. In November I was arrested for possession of alcohol and five counts of drug paraphernalia.

The next morning I went to swimming class early and told my teacher, Mr. Tobias about my arrest. I wanted him to hear it from me before he read about it in the paper. He was the only teacher I had left whom I felt like I got any respect from. He gave me a short, impromptu speech about how this was going to be a “dark mark” on my life and I would have to work hard to restore people’s faith in me.

The next day, after it was in the paper, I saw my sophomore year biology teacher, Mr. Levin in the library. He yelled, “Get over here!,” put me in a headlock, said, “You’re going to shut up and you’re going to listen to me. You fucked up. You know that, don’t you? Nod your head if you understand. Now you’re going to quit fucking up, right?”

Those two were the only teachers who said anything to me about it at all. It was hard to live up to either of their advice in the short term. I made a swift decision to graduate early.

My swan song to high school was my final report card. It read: ABCDF. I orchestrated that. I knew exactly how much effort to put into each class to get the grade that I wanted. It was a joke I’m sure at the time only I found funny. A joke on how arbitrary grades are. A joke on my younger self for my goal to get straight-A’s all through high school. My goal to be valedictorian, to earn a National Honors Scholarship. Goals that had at one point all been well within my reach.

It got worse. After I graduated I got arrested again. Alcohol again, but this time I also had marijuana in my possession, not just paraphernalia. I lost my job as a lifeguard. My employers had overlooked the first arrest because I went to Teen Court, did community service, and proved I was clean by passing a drug test.

At the end of my first semester of college I flunked all of my classes, dropped down to two classes my second semester, and just barely passed those. I was so jaded by my high school experience that I lost all work ethic and still held onto hostility toward educational institutions, even while I was attending a completely different, much more accepting one. This behavior continued well into my twenties, as I slowly built myself back into a semblance of the student I used to be, albeit a deeply scarred one.

I know I’m being maudlin about my experience, but keep in mind I’m telling it to you the way I have told it to myself over and over again. I want to take full responsibility for my fucking everything up, but I know it wasn’t completely my fault. The school failed me. My parents noticed all of this as I was quite oblivious to where the school was not doing its job. The year after I graduated my father even wrote a letter to the school board, urging them to scrap their oppressive Secondary Code of Conduct:

[Kyle] went from being tied for first in his class at the end of his freshman year to 94th ….the administrative support for students at the front office does not exist except for scheduling and discipline. What appears to be so obvious a need and so simple to implement keeps on going unattended year after year! All that happens is progress in making new rules to discourage kids or get them to drop out or graduate early.

My daughter has recently started working for teen court. In the short time she has been there she has noticed a pattern of kids in trouble with the law. A frequent beginning is a kid getting into trouble at school. An example is too many tardies resulting in ISSP[2] and sometimes the punishment has been 3 ISSPs. During ISSP many teachers do not cooperate in giving homework or make-up work. The result has been in many cases the student going from B – A student to D – F. Once that happens, the student is discouraged and the risk of dropping out increases. After Kyle was arrested, my review of the facts of the arrest led me to the conclusion that he could have easily prevailed in criminal court because of many factors based upon his constitutional rights and the statutes. Basically, the arrest should not have occurred. We chose not to fight the charges. Nonetheless, Kyle, a kid who needs help and encouragement, was suspended for 30 days from all activities. When receiving his sentence from the school district, I asked what suggestions the district representative had for helping Kyle get back on track. The school representative’s response was “Kyle is trying to find himself.” No suggestions were offered i.e. that is your problem not ours.

  * * *

I’m not trying to say school officials had to cater to my every need. But what my dad and I are trying to understand is what good is coming from what they are doing?

I didn’t need to be medicated. I know that much. I needed someone to take an interest in me. I needed a support system to check up on me, to let me express what I was going through.

A couple years ago I got together with my freshman year English teacher. We spent three hours one afternoon, talking over coffee. I told her early in the conversation that I was gay, and that I am very concerned about the nation’s recent spike in teenage suicide. Then I brought up the weekly journals she assigned, that were an open source for all of her students to write about things that were on their minds. My parents saved all of their children’s important schoolwork, and I had recently gone through all of mine. I read through all the journals I had written for Miss Schneider, even transcribed them to my computer.

Reading them as an adult, it was clear to me that what I was looking at were the guarded confessions of a gay teen. Although I did not come out directly to Miss Schneider in them, I was trying to clear a path to that process. You can see me working through these questions on the page. My intense feelings for one boy in particular were the subject of many of these journals. There were entire entries about my frustration with friends who made gay jokes about me at overnights, more so than the any of the other guys in our group. They caught onto it very early. Earlier than I did.

I told all of this to Miss Schneider, in a long, multipart question I had forming for her, because I was sure she must have had some dilemma of her own, about where her place was in this matter, knowing she could lose her job if she suggested to a fifteen year old that he might be gay. Did she think about trying to simply foster me in some way, to guide me so I would figure it out for myself, all the while suggesting her classroom was a safe place for me?

Her answer disquieted me. She never had a clue. She said she doesn’t look at people “that way.” I didn’t have the spirit left to ask her what she meant by “that way.”

  * * *

I look at what Eric and Dylan did and what I did on a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum is the very worst possible thing a person can do: mass homicide; killing innocent people. Next to that would be suicide. I’m somewhere over on the other side of the spectrum. Coming out probably would have been then best possible thing I could have done, but I didn’t quite do that. I made a statement, but it was the wrong statement. I addressed it. Kept going to school. Survived. Didn’t kill anybody. Although I wanted to.

I did the thing that was right for me in that moment. I don’t know if at the age of 17 I was capable of coming totally out. I did go to high school with people who were out. Some of them had been out since grade school. They told their families. They all had time to prepare for the stormy future. Those early ones, the proud ones, they were the ones whose property got vandalized. Who got the harassing phone calls. Who went out to the parking lot every day hoping their cars weren’t vandalized again. Who couldn’t go up to the front of the classroom without hearing someone pretend to cough and say the word “dyke” or “faggot.” Who people quit making eye contact with in middle school. Who felt unsafe every day of their lives.

I also have friends who came out later than I did, who waited until college like my parents would have liked for me to have done. I also have friends my age—early thirties—who are still not out. And yes, I have known people who were out to only a few people, and decided to kill themselves instead of trying to live their lives out in the open.

The morning of Columbine was the day after my grandmother’s funeral. My family had buried both of my father’s parents in less than one week from each other. They died one after the other, within days. Bang Bang. My grandfather was my best friend. We became close over the past seven or eight years since his wife started losing her mind and was in and out of nursing homes. He died without knowing I was gay.

I had come out to my parents and older siblings a little over a year before his death, just weeks before I was outed at school. My parents instructed me to not tell my grandfather and to wait for my younger siblings to get a little bit older before I told them. In fact, my parents asked exactly how many people I had told, suggested maybe that was enough, and to refrain from telling anybody else. They were pissed this embarrassing secret had gone outside the family. To them, my belief that I was gay was something that should go through a test phase with the family first, because what if I didn’t feel the same way in five, ten years? Because then I would wish I could go back and unsay the things I had said.

How little straight people understand about what the closet is like and why we feel the need to come out. For years I debated whether my grandfather died without “knowing the real me.” I hear so many gay men say being gay is “the least interesting thing about them.” I cringe at the cliche of it, even though I agree. There are days I don’t even want it brought up in conversation, but we all know those people who always have to make it part of every conversation they have with us. No, it is not the most interesting thing about me, but I will say this: It is essential information about me. Anyone in my life who does not know it, up until the moment I tell them, our relationship has been predicated on a lie.

I feel like I am lying to my students every day. They could learn from knowing the true me. I feel like I am hiding myself from my colleagues, who could also learn from knowing the true me. Perhaps they won’t even mind that much. I haven’t given them the chance to have that discourse with me.

  * * *

My mother looked at me like she didn’t know who I was anymore. My words exactly to her were: “Don’t be surprised if this happens more often.” I said that the morning she told me there were kids shooting people at their high school. The day we now refer to as “Columbine.”

She and my father were mortified. “What do you mean?” she asked, like I knew something she didn’t. Like us teenagers were using the Internet to organize this sort of thing.

“I just mean kids are really pissed off nowadays, Mom. There’s a lot of hatred in the air at high schools. You can sense it. It doesn’t surprise me that a teenager would take a gun into his high school and shoot up the place. In fact, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often.”

I followed that up with, “I’m going to TJ’s.” The Columbine massacre happened on April 20th—the holiday of pot smokers. Graduated early from high school, I was living in my parents’ attic, a sexless gay eighteen year-old who had just broken up with the girl I had been dating to try to assimilate to hetero-normativity, and I had just put two of my grandparents in the ground. I was going to get high as fuck that day.

My friends and I bought a lot of weed and had a longterm plan in place for that day, but it got interrupted for the first few hours because we were watching live footage on CNN of this atrocity. We were back-and-forth watching it, trying to pull ourselves up out of it and have a good time, but at the same time acknowledging how terrifying it was and how we hoped people would survive, although we were mature enough to realize there were going to be casualties. I remember the whiteboard up against the window: 1 BLEEDING TO DEATH.

We also understood that it could have been happening to us, that one of our fellow students, somebody maybe we never even would have suspected, some kid who you never even knew his first name, could pull something like this. And that’s who we suspected these kids were.

As we watched the footage I said something even more macabre to my best friend, Mark. In complete confidence I solemnly said to him how I really felt about the massacre taking place before us on live television.

The more I sat there watching it unfold on TV, I thought back to that night, lying in my bed in my pitch dark room. How badly I wanted to do what those kids were now doing at their school. And the more I thought about it that day in 1999, I had to let it out to somebody. I leaned over to Mark, told him in total confidence, and just out of a place that I needed to let this thing out, I said, “You know those two kids in there, shooting up their school? They’ve got to be having the most fun they’ve ever had in their lives.”

  * * *

The first attack on a school in the US was in 1927. There were none between then and 1966. Between 1966 and 1999 there were 46. That is 1.39 a year.

Since April 20th, 1999 there have been 75 attacks on schools. 5.35 a year. Meaning one every 68 days. That’s one every two months since Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. That’s 3.85 times the frequency they occurred before April 20th, 1999. Attacks on schools have quadrupled in frequency since Eric and Dylan.

Overheard during the Columbine massacre: “This is what we always wanted to do. This is awesome!” “Who wants to be killed next?” “Peekaboo!”

They were laughing a lot, joking back and forth to each other from across the halls as they tossed bombs and blasted their firearms. They questioned victims, laughed sadistically at whatever they answered—everything was a joke to them by that point. There were no correct answers to save your life. Some they shot, some they left alone. Everything was random—because they still wanted to blow up the school. They picked people off for fun as they made their way to the cafeteria, where they tried to detonate the bombs manually. This failed, so they retreated to the library, where each shot himself in the head. On the count of three.

Dylan’s shirt said WRATH. Eric’s said NATURAL SELECTION.

They split a pair of black gloves. Klebold wore one on his left hand. Harris wore one on his right. No one can explain why they did this.

  * * *

Will and some of his friends and I are standing at that strange nexus between the doorway and the hall, that little space of freedom students are always inching towards at the end of a period, and it’s up to me to draw my own version of the arbitrary line they are not supposed to cross. I’ve subbed for Will four times by my count. He’s the kind of student who tries to push the boundaries in the student-teacher relationship—he was the one who asked me if the teacher I was subbing for smoked pot. Will is tall, blond, cute in an Anthony Michael Hall way, and I think he knows it. He’s smart, but hip, and his shirts are always conspicuously slogan-free.

Will asks me what my tattoo represents. I give him an honest answer: it’s an infinity symbol wrapped around my wrist. He presses, “But what does it mean to you?”

I launch into how it represents my belief in an infinite number of parallel universes. I explain: “It used to be science fiction, but now it’s a widely-accepted theory. And they even say that when parallel universes come into contact with each other, a new Big Bang occurs and a new universe is created. So Big Bangs are happening all the time all around us, but we just haven’t figured out how to detect them yet.”

“You don’t believe in God, do you?”

That clever little shit stopped me in my tracks.

I hadn’t prepared an answer to that one yet. I was immediately uncomfortable and answered, “I don’t think I should be discussing that with you.”

“Come on,” Will said, “We’ve grown past that.”

“Okay  . . .  I’m an atheist,” I said it like it was a bad thing. I almost sounded ashamed of myself. I thought about “The Moment of Silence.” I thought about the stupid fucking “Pledge of Allegiance.” I decided to clarify for Will: “Actually, I’m a hardcore atheist and I think the world would be a much better place without religion. That’s how I really feel, William.”

His little friend asked, “What’s an atheist?”

Will answered, “Atheists are people who don’t believe in anything.”

“No, no, no, no,” I stopped him emphatically, “That’s totally not what an atheist is. I just don’t believe there is such a thing as a god. I do believe in lots of things. I just told you I believe in parallel universes. I believe in quantum mechanics. I believe in science and I believe in people.”

  * * *

These are places where we spend a lot of our lives. Although these institutions tell us they are “Helping Students Achieve Their Dreams,” they tend to garner hostile, cold associations. People dread being in these places, either from the terrible things they have heard of taking place within the walls, or from the terrible things that have happened to us while we were there. Facing our horrors every day and learning to coexist with people we hate and fear is part of growing up. But it does take its toll. While they may form some of us to be strong, they render many of us weak. These environments unwittingly cultivate anomalies like Eric and Dylan.

People who lack empathy. People who spend their days telling other people what they cannot do. Don’t wear that shirt. Don’t wear so much makeup. Don’t say those words. Don’t think those things. Don’t be that way. People who live their lives upon a foundation of doublespeak. People who say they have “A Commitment to Excellence,” while they perform the exact opposite every day, as if it’s their job.

I am qualified to teach college, because I hold a master’s degree, but I am not qualified to teach K-12 because I lack the all-important degree in Education. To become a qualified teacher I would have to go back to school for two or three more years. At thirty-three I am not in a rush to do that.

At times in a classroom when I have gotten students to cooperate with me and each other, in moments of triumph, I ask myself, can I do this? Get up early every day? Make compelling lesson plans? Lead discussions and be engaged with every student? Live off a small salary? I am capable of all of it.

Will I give my life over to it?

 

 

[1]    KMFDM is an initialism for Kein Mehrheit Für Die Mitleid, loosely translated as “No pity for the majority.” False interpretations of the band’s name have been “Kidnap Madonna for Drug Money,” “Kylie Minogue Fans Don’t Masturbate,” and the one I was led to believe by my friends, “Kill Mother-Fucking Depeche Mode.”

[2]    In-School Suspension

 

BIO:

Kyle MustainKyle Mustain is a 2012 graduate of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington’s MFA program for Creative Writing, where he specialized in nonfiction.

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Paul Garson author

Cry Havoc and Let Slip the Dogs of War:
Man’s Best Friend on the WWII Battlefield

By Paul Garson

All photos & illustrations from the Author’s Collection

 Dog Story Capt. David Vogel, of the 102nd Engineers, trains in war games with dog Rex in a photo taken in 1935.

 

When Shakespeare had Marc Antony, after Caesar’s assassination, lament … Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war… the phrase appearing in the Bard’s 1601 play Julius Caesar… he was not referring literally to dogs. Although huge canines were used in Roman warfare, the phrase was originally a signal used by English military commanders of the Middle Ages to signal their soldiers to begin the usual pillage and chaos accompanying engagements on the battlefields.

The Bark Heard Round the World

While the wolf became man’s companion 12,000 years ago, it would be 4,000 years before the historical record indicates they were first trained as wardogs, oddly enough in Stone Age Tibet. As far back as 800 B.C. illustrations of mastiff like dogs were trotting alongside King Tut’s chariot as seen in his tomb art. Apparently large fighting dogs were also popular with Kryos, then King of Persia who had then harnessed and sent to the frontlines of battle.

The effectiveness of the dog as weapon eventually took hold worldwide. Some 30,000 of the mastiff type dogs became a staple of Kublai Khan’s 13th century all-conquering army. In the following centuries, wardogs have appeared in times of conflict taking on a variety of roles from message carriers to sentries to first aid providers to living bombs and occasionally as supplemental rations.

Eventually brought into Europe, the Romans took hold of the concept breeding smaller dogs for herding and guard dogs, larger ones as weapons of war, the latter equipped with spiked collars and armor while some carried containers of open flame on their backs to create panic among the enemy’s warhorses. One of the first “hero dogs” recorded was named Sorter, the only survivor of 50 wardogs that were the first to meet a surprise attack by Athenian soldiers during the Corinthian War (395-87 B.C.). Sorter ran to the citadel arousing the sleeping garrison who threw back the attacking force. In appreciation the dog was awarded a silver collar with an inscription, “To Sorter, defender and savior of Corinth.”

Columbus brought 20 tracking dogs with him to the New World and the Spanish Conquistadors used attack dogs in their destruction of the Aztec empire. By 1500 dogs were serving as frontier guards, catching errant cattle in England and tracking runaway slaves in America where Benjamin Franklin in 1755 described the best way to use dogs “against the Indians.” By the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the French Army had organized complete camps to care for their canine soldiers. In the early 1900s when battling the French and Spanish in colonial Morocco, the Rif natives dressed dogs in their clothes to attract gunfire and thus reveal the enemy’s positions.

The very first recorded dog show took place in Belgium on May 28, 1847 near Brussels. Then in 1880 a Belgian breeder, Edmond Moecheron, became famous throughout Europe by giving sideshow-like demonstrations of his specially trained “police-dogs” which set the whole concept in motion. This breed of Belgian Shepherd, similar in appearance to the Rottweiler, came into official police use in 1899.

 

Wardog as Standardized Weapon

Moving forward to the first of the World Wars, the British embarked as it were on a head start program just prior to the outbreak of hostilities when they began organizing a War Dog Training Center under the leadership of a Lt. Col. E. H. Richardson. They however had taken the cue from the Red Cross which first promoted canines for ambulance duties on the Western Front. While England thought it a jolly good idea, its French allies found the idea unacceptable and quickly banned their ambulance attendant use shortly after the war began. In the autumn of 1914, Richardson, undaunted, then focused on equipping his charges for sentry and patrol duties. After finding the breed particularly adaptable to the requirements, Airedales were his main choice but the Catch-22 was that he had to requisition the dogs from their source in France. He managed to acquire a few four-footed French recruits that apparently learned English very quickly. The training went well and the British found support in their efforts when their Belgian allies were receptive to the idea, Richardson then supplying them with several of his graduates. Some also went to Britain’s WWI Russian allies who equipped the dogs with medical supplies and set them lose to find the wounded lost in the desolate landscape of Manchuria.

The Belgian military had previous experience with dogs of war, having employed a special indigenous breed, the now extinct Matin–Belge, apparently a very sturdy Mastiff variation that often pulled heavy machine guns and ammunition carts.

Meanwhile the English were looking for more uses for their dogs, so Lt. Col. Richardson provided two Airedales, aptly named Wolf and Prince, to his comrades at the Royal Artillery, 56th Brigade, 11th Division and received glowing reports as to their performance which accelerated further efforts to develop more dogs as messengers in the field.

A training school was subsequently established in France, the main kennels located in Etaples initially under the direction of a Maj. Waly, then by 1917 the operation came under the control of the Royal Signal Corp. Each human handler was acquainted with three dog trainees and vice-versa. As the British were particularly fond of their dogs and provided for those in need, many were found available from various Dog Homes in Bristol, Liverpool, Birmingham, and Manchester. Due to an ever increasing demand, strays from all over the UK were rounded up by the local constabulary, then as the need continued to mount, additional “volunteers” were requested from the general public. The appeal was well-answered by those felt they were unable to adequately feed their pets as a result of war rationing. Soon it was raining “dogs and dogs.”

The German Shepherd aka Alsatian aka Wolfdog was first developed in 1899 by Capt. Max von Stephanitz who through careful breeding produced an ideal service dog under the motto “utility and intelligence.” Their jaws exerted 238 psi of pressure, second only to the Rottweiler. Eventually introduced into the military by the Prussians, the Reichswehr had 6000 dogs trained for battlefront duty during WWI.

Germany also trained their dogs to carry and deliver medical supplies and sometimes a bit of schnapps. At times they wore the symbol of the German Red Cross (Rotes Kreuz), a collar identifying them as acomfort dog” or Sanitätshunde in the service of the German military. While they were trained to ignore corpses, the dogs were trained to retrieve from the wounded soldier his Bringsel, a decorative cord that was an element of the Prussian uniform. After bringing the cord to a medic, the dog would lead his human team mates to the wounded soldier. As the injured were treated, the dog would provide comfort therefore the name “comfort dogs.”

Back in America, with its isolationist policy looking askance at entering a European war, its canine contribution amounted to some 400 sled dogs provided for use by the French military, the war raging on three years prior to U.S. involvement. However, one French dog, a Highland Terrier, adopted by an American infantryman saved many WWI doughboys, his acute hearing warning of artillery attacks as well as his success in delivering critical messages under fire. Named Rags, and besides surviving many wounds, he was also the first dog to parachute when his owner found it necessary to bail out of an observation balloon. Perhaps the most decorated and most famous WWI canine was a bulldog named Stubby whose intelligence and bravery saved many American soldiers to the point he was presented to three Presidents-Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge.

By war’s end in 1918, some 30,000 dogs had served with the Allies and Central Powers and had brought aid to the fallen, acted as couriers, first-aiders, guards and early warning sentinels. Over 3,000 were KIA.

 

 dog sample breeds

Angels Disguised as Devil Dogs: America’s Elite Canines

 

“At Ease” – New Recruits at WWII U.S. Army Training Center

Several breeds are represented including a Great Dane, German Shepherd, Doberman, Airedale, Collie, Labrador and good American mutts. While not seen in this photo, one of the first wardogs was the poodle. One such four-legged French hero was named Moustache who though wounded rescued the French flag at the famous battle at Austerlitz on December 2, 1805.

 

* * *

Playing K-9 Catch-up

While the U.S. the military had neglected wardog training during the first war, they began to catch up prior to the following war, in part due to the campaigning efforts of a dog breeder named Arlene Erlanger who, anticipating the need, formed a group called Dogs for Defense. Celebrities of the day added their vocal support of the program including movie stars Rudy Valle and Mary Pickford who in fact gave their personal dogs in the hopes of inspiring the American public to follow suit. Eventually the U.S. military, who named their war dog project the K-9 Program, began experimenting with some 30 breeds before focusing mostly on German Shepherds and Dobermans, the selectees then trained for sentry, patrol, messenger, tracking, and mine-detection duties. Some dogs even joined U.S. paratroopers and British SAS parachuting with them into enemy territory.

All such dogs were held in high regard for their loyalty, intelligence and courage under fire, often laying down their lives for their humans. They were especially valued in the Pacific Theatre where the Marines faced stealthy assault by skilled Japanese infiltrators. The canine warriors often slept in the foxholes with their handlers. The dogs exercised exceptional hearing, up to 35,000 hertz per second as compared to a human’s maximum of 20,000 as well as the ability to close-off their inner ear and micro-focus on a particular sound. Acute audio skills were complemented by a sense of smell some 100 times more acute than a human and capable of following a scent several days after originally made and as far away as 250 yards. As a result, these war dogs served as “early warning systems” often sounding the life-saving alarm while their intense loyalty and fearsome aggressiveness often threw them into direct hand to paw combat.

 

Training Takes a Twist

A more than strange story comes out of the effort to train war dogs for Pacific duties, i.e. battling the Japanese. A plan was hatched to teach dogs to identify Japanese people. Some 25 Japanese-American soldiers were asked to volunteer for a secret mission. They found themselves off the coast of Mississippi on Cat Island which apparently had the climate of the Pacific islands plus plenty of alligators. According to veterans who took part, they spent four hours a day training the dogs, the rest fishing, playing guitars and drinking plenty of beer since the island’s water was sulfurous.

Training consisted of feeding the dogs meat and firing a gun at the same time for several months. Then a period when the Japanese –Americans were ordered to whip the dogs until they bled which resulted in the dogs being very eager to bite them anytime they saw them. It wasn’t popular with the dogs or the soldiers. As it turns out the plan didn’t pan out, the dogs didn’t differentiate between races, and most dogs were too civilianized to take well to the training. When a demonstration for the brass didn’t go well, the military pulled the plug on the program in July 1944 but not before 400 dogs went through the Cat Island experiment. A more traditional war dog training program was then initiated.

 

Leathernecks with Collars

During WWII, there were also rigorous programs organized at the Marine Corps War Dog Training School at Camp Lejuene, NC. As a result, several Dog Platoons were formed then sent with their handlers to take part in many of the amphibious landings on Japanese island strongholds including Guam, Bougainville, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jimo, the Philippines and Okinawa. On Guam alone, the dogs took part in over 550 scouting patrols during which 40% saw encounters with the enemy detected by the canines. Many of the dogs and their handlers seeing action in the Pacific campaign paid the ultimate price but in the process saved hundreds of American lives as well as contributed to the destruction and capture of hundreds of the enemy. Many of the Pacific islands had their own wardog cemeteries. On Guam alone, one such burial place held 25 K-9 soldiers.

The dogs, trained to withstand the sound of gunfire and explosions, were also taught to remain silent when they detected danger so as not to alert the enemy. A technique was developed that saw the handler, when sleeping at night in a foxhole, would lie with one hand, palm up, against the throat of his dog. Although trained not to bark or even growl when detecting an enemy soldier creeping toward the foxhole in the cover of darkness, the dog’s throat would emit a vibration that would be felt by his handler and thus awaken him in time to thwart the attack. Obviously both dog and man were very much in tune with each other, deep bonds that often saw sacrifice from both. In one instance, a Marine K-9 familiar with the effects of grenades, saw one land nearby a group of leathernecks, grabbed it its jaws and ran clear of the men, but not in time to drop the grenade.

 

war dog swims in pool

Pool Training

Special training installations could be used both for water and fire simulations. Here a dog is being gently introduced to a water training site used by the 508th Parachute Infantry, 82nd Airborne. Notations on the back of photo identify the dog as “King” and the soldier as “Pittman” while the installation is located in Frankfurt, Germany, the time frame a few months after war’s end.

 

war dog dober Aug 1944

The photo and caption appeared in the August 1944 issue of the American Legion Magazine. The sleek, almost elegant yet fear-inspiring Doberman-Pinscher was prized by American troops for their skills and bravery, especially in the Pacific battlefield and where, as a result of their short fur, the animals weren’t as affected by the heat and humidity as other dogs. Originally the Marines inherited many German Shepherds from the Army, but later gained many Doberman’s thanks to the efforts of the Doberman Pinscher Club of America. Some estimates indicate 75% of the dogs in Pacific service were Dobermans.

 

war dog parachute Dec 1943

Successful Landing – February 1943

In a Signal Corp photo snapped somewhere in England, a dog named “Salvo” is shown planting his feet on the ground to resist the pull of his open parachute while waiting to be released from his harness by his U.S. Arm Air Corps fellow soldiers.

Salvo appears to have some Jack Russell in him while the two aircraft in the background appear to be an American ‘spotter’ and a British open cockpit trainer, each bearing the emblems of the U.S. Army Air Corps and British Royal Airforce.

 

Marine Devil Dog 1944

Semper Fi – South Pacific – August 1943

A Marine “devil dog” named Andy joins his two legged comrades, PFC Robert E. Lansley of Syracuse, NY and Lt. Clyde A. Henderson of Brecksville, OH. The trio was photographed somewhere on Bougainville, the island the scene of savage fighting during the campaign that lasted from November1, 1943 until August 21, 1945 as U.S., New Zealand and Australian troops battled the deeply entrenched Japanese holding the island.

The term “devil dog” was actually the name given to U.S. Marines by their WWI German enemy, while G.I.s and Marines considered their canine comrades “angels.” In this case Andy and his handlers were “on point” during a patrol on the look-out for snipers and ambushes. Andy would trot ahead and “indicate” if danger lurked nearby. At one point Andy indicated something was not right with two banyan trees flanking both sides of a trail. The Marines then noticed the trees had been camouflaged as machinegun nests and destroyed them before they could unleash their lethal cross-fire.

Many dogs serving in the Pacific developed illness and contracted diseases caused by the climate as well as insects. Often the dogs had to survive on a diet of C-rations and many with thick coats suffered from temperatures reaching well over 100 degrees. Heartworms and kidney diseases were common afflictions not to mention shrapnel and gunshot wounds for which they were cared for by medics alongside their human comrades.

 

wounded Shepherd

Hail Caesar – Two Bullets Couldn’t Stop Him

While he may not have received a Purple Heart, a Marine-trained K-9 Corps Shepherd named “Caesar” earned the gratitude of the leatherneck with whom he served for saving his life and taking two bullets in the process. During the battle on Bougainville, Caesar, a member of the 1st Marine Dog Platoon, was on patrol with his two handlers Prvt. Rufus Mayo of Montgomery, AL and Prvt. John Kleeman of Philadelphia, PA, both members of M Company, 3rd Raider Battalion. In the dense jungle their walkie-talkies became useless so Caesar filled the gap as the main source of communications from the soldiers’ position at a strategic roadblock and the command post in the rear. Caesar made nine round trips under fire and later prevented a Japanese infiltrator from dropping a grenade into the marine’s foxhole, but in turn was shot twice. He recovered and lived on, but with a bullet lodged near his heart.

Meanwhile on the European Front, American K-9 soldiers were performing above and beyond the call of duty as sentry dogs, ammo carriers, messengers, mine detectors, search and rescue, even in combat roles and parachuting with Airborne troops. A Shepherd/Husky/Collie mix named Chips landed on Sicily with Patton’s Seventh Army during the operation ironically called Operation Husky. Detecting a camouflaged pillbox, the dog raced forward diving into the bunker and routed the Italian machinegun team forcing four to surrender. Chips was awarded a Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Star, the first and only dog in the history of the United States to do so. His act of bravery under fire spurred further recruitment and use of wardogs. However when he nipped Gen. Eisenhower’s hand, he was relegated back to sentry duty, but eventually was “pardoned” and took part in the D-Day invasion.

 

war dog comic Chips

The story even turned up as part of a comic book that gave the backstory about Chips, the dog volunteered by Gail and Nancy Wren from Pleasantville, NY. The story describes him as a “mutt” and both he and his handler, the latter named Rowell, as being clumsy and a lot of trouble according to their sergeant. One of the panels even shows Chips nipping Eisenhower, followed by Chip and his handler in a landing craft under fire during the landings on Sicily and also his routing of the machinegun nest.

 

dog press guard

Corporal Butch on Home Front Patrol – Spy Catcher – 1944

The Westinghouse press release photo dated August 10, 1944, appeared with the following caption:

 

“Good work, pard,” says Sgt. Denkel J. White to canine Corp. Butch after the war-plant police dog had discovered a strange man rowing a boat in the Delaware River near the Westinghouse Merchant Marine plant at Lester, Pa. “even if he didn’t turn out to be a saboteur.” Corp. Butch helps guard the waterfront and the plant where turbines to drive America’s merchant marine fleet are made. The police say Corp. Butch, part Shepherd, part Chow, is “nearly human” in intelligence. Each night he picks one of them to accompany on the beat. He won’t fraternize with anybody who doesn’t wear a uniform. He has his own floor fan, identification and police badges, and hospitalization fund (5 cents a week from each policeman.)

 

wardog stamps

Caes Na Guerra – War Dogs – 2009 S Postal Issue by Sao Tome e Principe

The postage honoring wardogs was printed by the Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe, two volcanic islands straddling the equator located off the central eastern coast of Africa and comprising the continent’s smallest country (964 sq. miles), but they are big on stamps, a source of international revenue.

 

The Fate of Man’s Best Foxhole Friend

Prior to 2000 and new legislation allowing “discharged” wardogs to be adopted by civilians, service dogs were “euthanized” aka killed. An estimated 10,000 dogs were trained for WWII service. Of the 559 dogs still in the field at the end of WWII, 540 were “repatriated” to civilian lives. However of the estimated 4900 Vietnam wardog veterans still overseas, only some 200 made it back to the states. Thanks to new legislation, today most wardogs return to good stateside homes with applications for adoption far exceeding the number of dogs available.

 

 

 

BIO

Paul GarsonPaul Garson lives and writes in Los Angeles, his articles regularly appearing in a variety of national and international periodicals. A graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and USC Media Program, he has taught university composition and writing courses and served as staff Editor at several motorsport consumer magazines as well as penned two produced screenplays. Many of his features include his own photography, while his current book publications relate to his “photo-archeological” efforts relating to the history of WWII in Europe, through rare original photos collected from more than 20 countries. Links to the books can be found on Amazon.com. More info at www.paulgarsonproductions.com or via paulgarson@aol.com

 

 

 

 

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Larena Nawrocki writer

Stomping on Spiders:

The Fall of Saddam Hussein

by Larena Nawrocki

 

They were resting in their tent, sleeping or lying on their cots when the big sirens went off. Then the announcement came: “Get to the end of your tents.” Amber, a promotable, a specialist, and team leader in the army, gathered with her fellow soldiers at the open tent flap wondering what’s going on? Her black hair was slicked back against her head into a ponytail. Then the news reached them. “They’re taking down the statue.” As she told me this story, her hands came up to her shoulders as if she were riding a roller coaster. Her Polynesian-shaped eyes in cat-eye makeup widened. “We were all like ‘Oh my gosh!’” They were in BIAP or Camp Striker near the BIA, aka Bush International Airport to Americans and Baghdad International Airport to the locals. It surrounded Saddam Hussein’s palace grounds where they could see the large man-made lake in the midst of the dusty rock strewn terrain. They were only a half mile away.

In the spring of 2003, April 9th, the American troops took control of Baghdad. The US overthrew the government and the people were relieved and excited. BBC news claimed that a few Iraqi men tried to pull down the statue. They removed the metal plaque at its base. They weren’t able to so the US soldiers helped them by attaching a chain to an armored vehicle around its neck. The Marines were fired upon once while removing the statue, yet they quickly resumed the task.

Amber didn’t get to witness this event, though she told me some of the details from the actual fall. The soldiers there tried to get the citizens to bring down his statue, the statue of a man who terrorized his people. His sons and himself pillaged, raped, and murdered thousands of their people. Amber saw some of the graves grouped by the thousands, some by the palace. It’s estimated that 300,000 to one million were killed. She explained that the soldiers first tried to get the people to bring down the statue, yet they wouldn’t touch it. I asked her why they wouldn’t do anything and she replied that “they were too scared.” Some of the soldiers tied ropes and a chain around the statue and started to pull it down by themselves. Soon after that the people joined in. Soon the soldiers backed off and only the Iraqi people were left. Once it came down, they decapitated his head and beat on it. They tied ropes to it and dragged it through the city.

As I interviewed my co-worker, I wondered how she knew this if she was not there. I assumed it was from the soldier there at the time. After all, the whole camp was in Blackout. “I wanted to call my mom and say what happened.” Yet she couldn’t do so. They weren’t allowed to text, email, call, or leave the camp except when on duty. As she answered, her feet were bouncing up and down and she reached for her cherry slushy to take a sip.

I have only worked with Amber for only two months, but I already know her ambitions. She served in the army for six years and was deployed four times. She, like me, attends school and works as a hairstylist when not in class. Her goal is to become a nurse; a goal that helps others. After her first couple of weeks there, I learned about her military past.

I was talking about things that make me shudder. I hate spiders. They creep me out to no end. I once had a late night because random thoughts tortured my mind. While I was sitting at my computer watching TV, I saw a shadow in the corner of my eye. I looked at the door frame where it met the wall and there were two spiders; one the size of a quarter and the other the size of a half dollar. In my mind, they were as big as my fist. So I did the most logical thing I could think of. I stared, cried, and screamed in hushed tones until my angel mom came with a thick sole shoe.

Amber likewise had an encounter with a spider while in Iraq. I learned this story while interviewing her at the Southglenn Colorado Dairy Queen. Her patrol group had just finished and returned early in the morning. She decided to take a shower while it was still cool. The water was kept in giant plastic containers that heated up during the scorching day. The only time to wash was in the morning or at night when the water wasn’t boiling. The showers were about one DQ wall to the other DQ wall wide. She showed this by gesturing with her arms. Roughly, it was about the length of the common car. Well, the sun was beginning to come up and cast her shadow on the wall. When she looked, there was a Camel Spider, in her shadow. Camel Spiders are enormous goliath spiders that reach 8 inches in length. They can run about 10 miles per hour and they follow your shadow. When she saw that spider, “Let me tell you, I freaked out. I was screaming and yelling, but I couldn’t move.” Amber’s body shivered as she told me this. She simply had to wait, naked, and wet, until some soldiers came to help. They cornered it, trapped it, and released it far away from base camp.

I was intrigued by how a strong female army veteran could fear bugs when she experienced the harsh reality of the war in Iraq. There was a bond through our fear of bugs, yet when I talked about her military career, her face tensed and she spoke in monotone. Her words were slow and fierce. “We knew what we signed up for.” Wanting to understand, I reached out to my sister’s half-sister Jennifer Gustin and her husband Cody. Both served in OIF (operation Iraqi Freedom); Jennifer served in the 86th CSH, or combat support hospital and Cody is currently and was in the 160th SOAR unit, or special operations aviation regiment. Part of Cody’s job was to fly Chinook Helicopters in Mosul, Iraq and escort prisoners, or insurgents. He also had an experience with a slimy creepy crawly.

In Kuwait, February 2003, they were prepping for the invasion of Iraq by building up Camp Udari, or now called Camp Buehring. They were digging Z trenches in the vast dirt chalkboard desert when someone saw a lizard. It was about four feet long with a prickly tail, much like a Spiney Tailed lizard. He had the bright idea to pick the lizard up and put his “finga in its cloaca” and talked to it “like Steve Irwin.” His friend videotaped him taking the lizard away from the safety of their tents. As he set the lizard down, it slapped his foot with unthinkable power and almost knocked him down. “Some days, that’s all I had to cheer me up.” Jennifer had a much different experience working in the hospital. She “had to piece together body parts of soldiers and bag them in mass casualties.” One of which was from a decision to pull a lever.

One picture that Amber showed me was of a vehicle’s skeleton, blackened and twisted with parts broken off. It was hardly recognizable as the car’s guts. I could imagine this picture as I read about Jennifer’s experience. There was an explosion from an IED, or a road side bomb. A US soldier whose senses were flooded by fear rammed into their barricade with his “hum’v.” Jennifer needed to either shoot or to pull up the road spikes. It could possibly be an insurgent bent on mass murder of all the wounded soldiers in the hospital. She chose to pull the lever. Later, she found out, one of the soldiers died. Though that soldier might have lived if she didn’t chose the lever, she “made the correct decision.” She protected the other soldiers. This experience added to emotional residue. “I was pretty shell shocked when I got back to the States.” It seems she would succumb to her fear, but her training kicked in. This may have been what happened with the citizens of Iraq, only with their vengeance. The videos of the statue’s fall are only two minutes long.

Three men tied a noose around the statue, but it was too tall to completely wrap it around his neck. The people are throwing shoes at him. A tank the color of their dirt and shrub landscape pulled up to the statue. A six story building vomits out smoke nearby. The crowd parted as it drove up. A marine balanced on the crane of the tank an tries to place an American flag on Saddam’s head. The wind makes it difficult. The next shot is of an Iraqi holding the flag, allowing it to flow free in the wind. The crowd takes up a chant as the marine tightens the noose around his neck and adds on a chain noose. A comrade behind him eyes his work and now holds the flag. The Iraq flag from before Hussein’s reign of terror flies in the hands of an Iraqi citizen. The crowd claps and whistles. The statue looks as if it is waving first. The birds fly frantically away. Then his legs break apart at the knees and he teeters slowly forward. Suddenly, the statue falls down into a horizontal position. It bounces up and down as they try to get it off its pedestal. The crowd rushes right below it in anticipation. It suddenly drops to the ground and the crowd swarms over it dancing and waving their arms. They are stomping on it.

I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like for them, but I have a small glimpse. I felt fear, much like how Amber felt when confronted with the nightmarish spider. I felt the fear and I didn’t do anything. Luckily I had help. If my mom had given me the shoe, would I have stomped on the spiders? Would I have been happy if someone helped me by enforcing their methods upon me? Would I have been myself still? I don’t know the answers to these questions. I am still afraid of spiders. Though the problem for that night was removed, I still have the implications because I didn’t overcome it myself.

 

 

 

BIO

Larena NawrockiLarena Nawrocki lives in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado. She is currently a senior at Metropolitan State University. She is working on obtaining a bachelor’s in English with an emphasis on education. She hopes to teach elementary level children to improve their writing through exploration of the world and current events. Until then, she is a cosmetologist who enjoys hearing the stories people tell every day. This is her first published non-fiction essay.

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Paula Panich

What God Hath Intended

by Paula Panich

 

Pectin makes it all possible. Pectin is one of God’s best ideas, purveyed in fruity packages. No question: God intended us to have jellies and jams and marmalade. This is why I take my marmalade straight, by the spoonful.

So my friend Julianna and I decided to make marmalade. We were inspired by a perfect bitter orange marmalade we had eaten in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and the delivery, by my friend and Los Angeles neighbor Léo, of a recipe for kumquat marmalade.

We were also inspired by this truth of communal cooking: It lightens the spirit. “It suffereth not the heart to be burnt,” as my seventeenth-century friend the Countess of Kent would have said. My heart, as it happened, was burning.

Shared labor with beautiful fruit, sugar, sharp knives, good conversation, and a big solid pot put to the fire—the citrus fragrance alone was a tonic.

 

Marmalade in our day seems to carry its own definition, which is a conserve of oranges. That’s what most of us think of when we think of marmalade, if we think of it at all. In fact, in Europe until the eighteenth century, the word marmalade, when used by itself, according to the British food historian C. Anne Wilson, meant only one thing: a marmalade of quinces.

The word for “quince,” in Portuguese, is marmelo.

But nothing is simple with the human heart, nor is it easy to untangle the means and the meaning of what looks to be an uncomplicated mix of sugar and fruit in a small glass jar. Human relationships with food, like our relationships with one another, are a complex and passionate matter, and involve politics, religion, and invasion.

Homemade preserves were known in Roman times; Greek physicians were convinced of the efficacy of quince to aid digestion; Dioscordes recommended it for dysentery and complaints of the liver and kidneys. His recipe for kudonites, made with quince, pops up in Tudor and Stuart times as “quidony of quinces,” and wouldn’t you, just once, love to attend a dinner party at which someone asked for this and it was brought forth?

It would be awhile, though, until marmalade was used to break the nighttime fast.

Marmalade of quinces was prepared dry, and cut, as you would a pie, with a knife, thanks to the discovery that cooked fruit combined with sugar (honey) and acid (vinegar) would result in a solid, thick, leathery, and delicious substance.

You can buy the offspring of this idea in quince paste from Spain, membrillo, sold in gourmet shops, to be eaten with cheese.

Now where was I? Yes, looking for a bridge to take us from quince to orange marmalade. Without Wilson’s The Book of Marmalade (1985, 1999), I might still be standing on a riverbank looking first to an island and then to the shore beyond, with no idea how to cross.

The first bridge is the apple; the second is a moving force we might call the conquering Arabs and the resulting Crusades.

The apple’s gift was its suitability for making jelly. (Many are the early recipes for “jelly of pippins”—pippin meaning for a few centuries any apple grown from a seed.) The pectin content of apples is highest when they are newly picked, in autumn.

The Crusades caused many hearts to suffer, both Arab and European, but left behind, in southern Europe, orange and lemon trees and the knowledge of how to make them flourish by means of irrigation.

Wilson surmises that if apples were put by to make jellies later in the year, intrepid magicians of the kitchen discovered that the addition of lemon juice would push along the jelling and that a bit of orange “pill” (peel) made it more interesting.

Here is a recipe from A True Gentlewoman’s Delight (1653), my own Countess’s cookery book, at least the one published under her name. (I’m obsessed with this cookbook!)

 

Take Pippins and pare them and quarter them, and coar them, lay them in water. And when you set them on the fire, shift them in another water, and put them in a skillet, and put as much water as will cover them and a little more, set them over the fire, and make them boil as fast as you can, when the Apples are soft, and the liquor tastes strong of the Apples, then take them off, and strain them through a piece of canvas gently; take to a pound of juice a pound of Sugar, then set in on the fire, and when it is boiled up then scum it, and make it boil as fast as you can, and when it is almost boiled, put in the juice of three Lemons strained through a cloth, and if you will have Orange pill pare it thin, that the white be not seen, and then lay it in water all night, then boil them in the water till the pill be soft, then cut them in long pieces, then put it into the sirrupe and shift it about and fill your glasses, and let it stand till it be cold, and then it is ready to it.

 

Julianna and I, at least on that day, had misplaced our faith in God and her pectin packaged in citrus fruit. We winged it a bit. But what we did wrapped us right into the feverish activities in the kitchens of the Countess four hundred years earlier, though with the reliable and consistent delivery of fire by my Viking stove. We, too, were boiling as fast as we could.

In our cookbooks and online, Julianna and I looked at many recipes urging a twelve- or twenty-hour “curing.” That’s when if you put seeds and pith into a cheesecloth bag, natural pectin will come forth and fulfill its proper function: that is, to provide just the right amount of thickening. We didn’t wait long enough in the cooking, however, curing or not curing, and foolishly lost faith in the natural process.

We used commercial pectin. We used commercial pectin and made the dry marmalade of the Middle Ages. It took a bit of work to excavate it from our pretty jars once it stood until cold—in our case, in the refrigerator.

But we loved our marmalade. We used mostly rangpur limes, Citrus x limonia, a cross between a mandarin orange and a lemon: very, very bitter, and not a lime at all. We used a great deal of sugar. Our marmalade was good to eat from the spoon, but its texture was not to everyone’s taste. It defied the expected.

 

Apparently John Lennon loved marmalade. And if I could easily get it, I would eat daily Frank Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade, the thick-cut version, which Captain Robert Scott took on his fatal trip to the Antarctic a century ago and Edmund Hillary toted in his pack to his icy death on Everest. They found momentary comfort in those jars. I’m sure of it.

 

Julianna and I had a jolly time, and later drank good white wine and ate delicious hearty Greek dishes brought in from a restaurant. Making marmalade with a beloved friend kept sorrow at bay, for, as my Countess says, it isn’t right for “melancholy or flegm to have dominion above Nature.” And what is melancholy except “flegm” of the heart?

 

 

BIO

PaulaPanich2My essay, “What God Hath Intended,” is part of an unpublished collection of personal essays entitled The Cook, the Landlord, the Countess and Her Lover. The subjects and themes of this book make up my primary concerns as a person and a writer — food, shelter, landscape, history, and of course, love.

My work as a professional writer was born the same year as my daughter, 1984. Some of this work has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Gastronomica, the Harvard Review, the North American Review, and other publications. I have written books, one of which is about nonfiction writing: Cultivating Words (Tryphon Press, 2005).

I’ve taught writing in many places, a great joy to me because I learn far more than I could possibly teach.

I have lived in Los Angeles with my family for nine years. In my north-listing 1921 garage in the middle of the city, I am a printmaker by avocation. I can see daylight through its peeling old boards.

 

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jj anselmi

Entering the Moment

by J.J. Anselmi

 

I heard the rumble of Steve’s Bronco when he pulled up to my parents’ house. Two months earlier, I’d started my junior year of high school.

“Ok mom, I’m going out to Jared and Bryan’s to ride.”

“Alright baby,” she said, looking up from her Anne Rice novel. Mom didn’t care if I came home super late from Jared and Bryan’s house or, oftentimes, not until the next day. When I was with my friends, she knew I’d be Ok. Our obsessive focus on BMX kept Jared, Bryan, Steve and me from fucking around with drugs or booze.

“I’ll call if I stay.”

Jared and Bryan lived seven miles outside Rock Springs, in a small community called Arrowhead Springs. Kenny and Tammy, Jared and Bryan’s parents, let my friends and me build ramps in their large garage. Within two years, we’d turned it into our own skate park. They also let Steve and me stay at their house too many times to count, basically adopting us into their family.

The fact that Dad had worked for Pacific Power for over twenty years seemed like a feat of manliness to me. In high school, my male classmates constantly talked about customizing their trucks and working tough jobs. I tried to follow their conversations, pretending that I knew what it was like to endure long shifts of backbreaking labor involving machinery that could eat you alive. But I felt like the world these boys inhabited would always be foreign to me. Building ramps with Jared, Bryan, and Steve helped me feel like a man in a town where I often didn’t.

Over the years, my friends taught me some basics of construction. Although he’d worked in a power plant, Dad was a mountain man, and he’d never been mechanically savvy. I hated the only woodshop class I’d ever taken because I constantly worried that the teacher and other boys thought I was a pansy. But, in Jared and Bryan’s garage, I loved to cut plywood and two-by-fours with an electric saw while listening to old school metal. My friends were patient when they taught me about ramp building, and their jabs about my lack of mechanical sense were mostly playful.

A gust of wind blew hair into my mouth when I walked outside. The October nights had become frigid, and the first snow of the year coated the sidewalks. Seven months of harsh Wyoming winter loomed. My breath snaked into the air, getting sucked from my throat by the wind. I looked at the plywood quarter pipe on the edge of my parents’ driveway, its bottom corners curling up from being left outside.

During the previous summer, I’d bought the ramp from a rollerblader. My friends and I hauled it to my parents’ house in my truck and set it up on the left side of the driveway. A few days later, I spray-painted ‘Six Six Six,’ ‘Destroy,’ and ‘Hate’ on the ramp. I didn’t believe in god or the devil, I was just an asshole metal head, and I loved to piss people off. Dad had spray-painted black boxes over my tags, but I could still see my words beneath thin coats of paint. He hated the tags for the same reason I thought they were badass: anyone who drove by our house could see them.

Pantera’s The Great Southern Trendkill pulsated my eardrums when I opened the back door of Steve’s Bronco. I lifted my bike in, careful not to scratch my Metal Bikes frame. We drove uphill, passing Uncle Mark and Keith Hay’s large houses.

On Highway 430, wind pushed against Steve’s Bronco, making it more difficult to pick up speed. Icy snow danced across the cracked asphalt. Steve and I didn’t try to talk over the music. “Suicide Note Pt. 1”—an acoustic ballad on an album that mostly consists of southern rock-infused thrash—drifted from Steve’s speakers. Phil Anselmo crooned, Would you look at me now?/ Can you tell I’m a man?

We passed SF Phosphates, a chemical plant that marked the turnoff to Arrowhead Springs. Large concrete and metal cylinders emitted sickly white smoke into the air. The chemical plant, with its flickering green and red lights, looked like a tiny, diseased city.

A cottontail suddenly darted across the road. The rabbit sounded like a plywood plank slapping against the Bronco’s wheel well when Steve hit it. “Those little fuckers,” he said. “It’s like they’re on a death mission.” We usually ran over at least one rabbit during the nights we drove to Jared and Bryan’s house.

After we parked in the driveway and got out of the Bronco, I heard plywood and two-by-fours slap against concrete, punctuated by a tink of coping. Light seeped under the tall garage door, which Steve lifted up for us to walk under. Metallica’s Kill ‘em All echoed off the insulated walls in the garage.

“Get the fuck out of here you fucking peter-eaters!” Bryan yelled. We’d started calling each other ‘peter-eater’ after Jared and Bryan’s dad drunkenly mumbled it at Jared one night.

Bryan pedaled at a quarter pipe on the far end of the garage. A three-foot wooden ledge sat on the deck of the ramp. Bryan jumped from the quarter pipe and stuffed his shoe between his fork and front tire, stalling on his front wheel on top of the ledge. With seeming effortlessness, he jumped back into the quarter pipe, landing an inch or two below the coping. Above the next ramp, Bryan planted his left foot on the wall while holding his bike above him. His back wheel spun, freewheel ticking like a manic clock, before he dove back into the transition. Throughout the rest of his run, Bryan performed similarly difficult tricks with the precision of a mathematician.

When Bryan finished his run, Steve shot out from his spot next to me. After airing a quarter pipe, he made a sharp turn and rode up the adjacent vert wall—a super steep ramp we’d pushed against Kenny’s tool room. Coming down, Steve pushed his tires into the transition to gain speed. He launched over the nearby hip and tilted his bike past ninety degrees, executing a perfect tabletop. Steve zipped around the garage, turning and spinning his opposite direction without a hint of awkwardness.

Steve’s smooth riding contrasted with his chaotic home life. His parents were divorced, and he switched between staying at their houses. Once, during a fight, Steve hit his step-dad in the kneecap with a hammer. Scared of getting his ass kicked, he rode to his dad’s trailer across town. Watching their big-screen, chain smoking, and blasting Motley Crue, Steve’s dad and step-mom got drunk every night. A pack of children with popsicle-smudged faces always seemed to be running around the trailer.

Like my dad, Steve’s dad—who Jared, Bryan, and I called Old Steve—was super supportive. He used to ride BMX himself, and, every once in a while, he’d hop on his old school Haro and ride with us. He’d also tell us stories about riding with his friends back in the day. They’d sharpen their pegs and do kick-outs into the doors of cop cars, which I thought was rad.

I can’t count how many times Old Steve fixed my car or truck. He was an amazing mechanic, and he knew most of the auto shops in town would rip me off. He never called me a pansy or dumbass because I didn’t know how to work on cars. Even though he spent forty-plus-hours-a-week working in an auto shop, he never seemed to mind helping me out.

But, like all of us, Old Steve definitely had his shortcomings. He and Steve’s mom hadn’t planned on having Steve. They were only kids themselves—both around seventeen or eighteen—and Old Steve didn’t want to force himself into a monotonous adult life. Although he loved his son intensely, I think he wanted to be Steve’s buddy instead of his parent. Steve only mentioned it to me a few times, but he and his dad had also gotten into a few fist fights, and I think this violence loomed over their relationship. When Old Steve teased his son as if he was his drinking buddy, Steve usually looked like he was trying too hard to smile. Riding fast and pumping each transition for momentum in the garage, Steve’s mind entered a place where only the present moment existed.

Starting my run, I ice-picked the ledge above the quarter pipe. Unlike Bryan, Steve, and Jared, I didn’t rotate my opposite direction during my runs. It felt awkward, and I didn’t have enough patience with myself to learn. At this point, I felt too embarrassed to go back and learn the foundational tricks my friends had all picked up in junior high.

I rode straight up a different quarter pipe, slamming my back wheel into the adjacent wall while squeezing my brake lever. I stalled in an over-vertical position for a fraction of a second, my front wheel hanging over my head. I hopped into the transition backwards, back-pedaling and then quickly flipping around. I loved the sensation of going down a ramp the wrong way. Most of my tricks consisted of variations on these two maneuvers—a fakie wall ride and an ice-pick stall—whereas my friends’ riding was much more varied.

“Yeah, J.J.,” Jared said. He, Steve, and Bryan clapped, although they’d all seen me land this trick several times before.

Jared pedaled toward the quarter pipe furthest from where we sat. Launching off the ramp, he spun a 180 and landed on the three-foot ledge. His sprocket dug into the wooden edge, and his front wheel hovered just above the quarter pipe’s coping. Jared used to tell me that this trick, called a disaster, is about overcoming the mental picture of flipping over your bars on the way back in and smashing your face on the ground. He hopped back into the ramp, tires adhering to the transition as if magnetized.

Riding, each of us pushed beyond fear. Momentarily floating in this space, we disconnected from thoughts about our fathers’ flaws and how much we hated Rock Springs. Even though I mostly did variations on the same tricks, overcoming fear was always part of the equation. You can’t ride without getting injured, and riders often get hurt doing routine tricks.

BMX constantly fucked all of us up. My injury list: separated shoulder; two broken feet; broken leg; countless gashes—one on top of my head that had to be closed with staples—scrapes, and bruises; fluid build-up behind both kneecaps—my right knee used to swell to twice its normal size after bumping it, even lightly; and one concussion. And my BMX injuries were minor compared to a lot of other riders’. I remember getting around school on crutches after I broke my foot or leg. Most kids and teachers knew how I’d hurt myself, and I felt like a badass as I crutched through the halls.

We rode for about an hour and a half before going upstairs. Jared and Bryan’s mom had bought KFC for us and set it out on the counter.

“Hi guys,” Tammy said. “J.J. and Steve, have some dinner.” Steve and I’d long gotten past the point of politely refusing food from Tammy, knowing she’d just tell us to eat anyway. On her way upstairs, she exhaled and stopped. To Jared and Bryan, she said, “Your dad won’t be home until late.” We all knew what this meant: Kenny was going to get shit-faced and drive home.

Bryan had recently ordered a new BMX video, Manmade Chapter 2. He put it in the DVD player while Jared, Steve, and I piled greasy chicken onto our plates and sat down in the living room. Filthy, tar-soaked riffs of Floor’s “Assassin” play during Dave King’s section, both of which made me feel giddy. Dave flies over huge dirt jumps, doing picture-perfect tabletops and turndowns—classic, style-oriented tricks. There’s a tough, manly beauty in his riding. He and his bike become one entity, and I wished that I could ride like him. A rider usually needs a background in racing to attain this level of smoothness, and I’d never raced. As Dave rides, Floor’s Steve Brooks, one of the few openly gay metal musicians I know of, sings Crazy for the boy in a weirdly soothing, off-kilter melody. This song perfectly fits Dave King’s stripped-down riding.

An energetic From Autumn to Ashes song plays during Chase Hawk’s section in Chapter 2, which follows Dave King’s. Chase floats in the air, whipping his back end to the side over steep dirt jumps as if his bike is an extension of his body. He doesn’t do circus tricks like double back flips, but, to me, his effortless flow was much more beautiful than the riding you’d see in contests like the X Games. You can hear the zip of his tires as he flies off the lip of a dirt jump, the whoosh of wind as he zooms past the camera. Over each jump, he performs an acrobatic dance that exists somewhere beyond human emotion. As I did with Dave King, I wished I could ride like Chase. About two years after this night, I’d hang out with Chase and Dave in Austin, discovering their bisexuality, which seemed terrifying at the time but now makes perfect sense.

We heard Kenny pull into the upper garage in his vintage Jaguar, a car he’d rebuilt himself. Like most nights, he’d driven home after getting hammered at a bar in downtown Rock Springs. During his early 20s, Kenny, driving drunk with two female passengers, had gotten into a gnarly accident. One woman died and the other would never walk again. About fifteen years later, Kenny flipped a four-wheeler onto himself, breaking his neck and back. Now, to turn his head, he had to turn his entire body, and he usually wore a neck brace.

Kenny shuffled in from the garage. He grabbed a plastic bowl of salad from the fridge, eating lettuce and vegetables with his bare hands. My friends and I laughed hysterically. I waited for Jared or Bryan to fuck with him.

“Dad,” Jared said. “You’re a fucking weasel peter-eater.” This phrase sent all of us into hysterics.

Kenny chewed a piece of lettuce, smacking his lips. Between incoherent mumbling, he said, “No, you’re a fucking weasel peter-eater.”

Laughing at Kenny, we told ourselves that we would never be like our fathers, even though we’d all inherited our penchant for recklessness from our dads. Although I laughed, I also knew that Kenny’s drinking was a yawning pain for Jared, Bryan, their older brother Jesse, and Tammy. We never said this, but my friends and I all wished Kenny wouldn’t drink anymore.

He was one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. With short brown hair and a trimmed beard, he was perpetually hunched over from his back injuries, and his lips always curled up in a smartass grin. Like a stereotypical Irishman, his cheeks were deeply ruddy. I still can’t believe that he let us fill his work space with ramps.

Instead of telling us to be careful when he watched us ride, Kenny would try to get us to do crazier shit, often yelling, “Do a 360!” When Steve and I came over, he never made us feel like mooches, even though we routinely raided his fridge and slept on his couches. He always told us to think of his expensive tools as our own, and his tool room became the go-to place when we needed to fix our bikes. Almost every time I saw Kenny, he asked me how my parents were doing. He and my dad had known each other for a long time, having a mutual friend in Joey Hay.

It was this mix of deep-hearted kindness and selfishness that made our dads so perplexing. Beneath our anger and sometimes-sarcastic view of our dads, I think we worried that they were constantly on the verge of killing themselves.

 * * *

During high school, Steve, Jared, Bryan and I became friends with Josh, a Rock Springs BMX hero who was seven years older than us. When Josh moved to Salt Lake, he offered us an open invitation to sleep on his floor. He lived with Mike Aitken, a legendary BMX pro. Like us, Josh was straight edge.

When he visited Rock Springs, he usually rode our garage ramps. One weekend, we were listening to the Ramones’ self-titled album as Josh walked his bike into the garage.

“Fuck this pussy shit,” he said. He grabbed a Pantera CD from his truck and put it in the garage stereo. Phil Anselmo’s anger on Vulgar Display of Power sent ecstatic pulses through my veins. I’d listened to Pantera a few times, but this was the moment when I fell in love with the band’s dirty southern thrash.

Josh’s lips curled into a tight frown while he rode. He went faster than any of us, and I always thought of the term ‘balls out’ when I watched him ride. He launched at a wall above a quarter pipe, planting his rear tire at least three feet above the highest point any of us had reached. He glided back into the transition, his freewheel roaring like a table saw.

Between Josh’s runs, I stared at his tattoos—tire-treads on his right bicep, and a bike company logo on his left wrist, both in black ink. Sweat glistened on his closely-shaven head.

Around Josh, I often felt embarrassed and frustrated by my riding. Still, after I landed a trick, he usually said, “Yeah,” or whistled.

  * * *

During the summer before senior year, my friends and I finished our BMX video, which we’d been working on for the past two and a half years. Bryan and I edited the video on my parents’ computer, teaching ourselves about editing as we went along. I loved feeling like I could control tiny snippets of reality.

Just a few weeks away from starting school, we watched our video at my parents’ house one afternoon. I wished my section had more trick variety, but I also felt like it captured my personality. Megadeth plays while I ride full pipes, street spots, and skate parks in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, California, Idaho, and Oregon. I was proud of my editing in the video, especially in this section. During the intro to my part, snippets of me riding, wrecking, and the tags on my quarter pipe flash, on beat with Megadeth’s high-energy death rock in “Skin O’ My Teeth.”

One of my favorite clips was of me riding a metal cylinder that Steve and I’d found earlier in the summer. Driving along a highway just outside Rock Springs, one of us noticed rows of huge metal pipes, all lying on their sides in an industrial yard. The gate was open, so I just drove in, passing three or four ‘No Trespassing’ signs. Barbed-wire-topped fencing lined the perimeter of the yard, and massive equipment that I didn’t even remotely understand surrounded us. I stared at metal teeth, intricate piping, and humongous tires, knowing that each machine in the yard could’ve swallowed me.

With some maneuvering, we were able to get our bikes through a small opening in one of the cylinders. Rust coated the inside of the pipe, and it took a minute or so for our eyes to adjust. The cylinder was hard to ride. Unlike a half-pipe built for riding and skateboarding, there was no flat-bottom, which would’ve made it a lot easier to accumulate speed.

I positioned myself at the bottom of one transition, then, pushing off, quickly rotated a bit less than 180 degrees on the other side. I spun on each side, then put pressure on my handlebars, pressing my front wheel into the transition’s curve to gain speed.

The pipe amplified sound. A metallic roar replaced the usual zip of my tires.

Steve and I filmed some clips of each other. In the clip of me riding the cylinder in our video, rust rises from the pipe’s surface, swirling around me as my tires touch the point where the transition curls over itself. Watching this clip now, I remember how rust particles floated into my nose and mouth, sticking to my teeth. I also remember how powerful I felt during these moments. The pipe weighed thousands of pounds, but it shifted, slightly, against my weight and momentum.

Breathing in rust became too much to handle after twenty or thirty minutes. The cylinder also magnified the dry Wyoming heat. A large work truck pulled up right after we got our bikes out. The driver, a middle-aged woman with short hair, said, “You guys should get out of here. I just called the sheriff’s department.”

Whenever I’d drive past the yard after riding the cylinder, I remembered the weightless feeling I experienced as I carved the pipe. I never found out why these cylinders had originally been built, and I didn’t care. In Rock Springs, I usually felt alienated by the industrial machinery surrounding me. But repurposing industrial objects gave me a sense of control. After I rode one of them, the cylinders seemed like they were made of something softer and more malleable than industrial-strength steel.

My friends and I finished watching the video and then decided to ride the ramps in front of my house. We’d put our bikes in the garage, where the rancid air made us all gag. Fishing poles, reels, nets, coolers, boat oars, spare tires, rope, disorganized tools and other random shit cluttered the garage floor. Bryan, Steve, and Jared covered their noses with their shirt collars as we picked up our bikes and went outside.

“Jesus Christ,” Bryan said as we sat on our bikes on the walkway that cut through the front yard. “What’s that smell again?”

“I think it’s those hides on the rafters. I don’t know why the fuck my dad still keeps them.”

We rode the quarter pipe for fifteen or twenty minutes, mostly just fucking around. Although we often rode seriously, we also spent a lot of time doing joke tricks that were either out of style or just plain ridiculous.

Dad pulled up in his truck, parking on the sloped curb next to our house. He grabbed a fishing rod and cooler from his flatbed. “Honest question,” he said, walking toward us. “Which one of you guys can do the baddest trick?” He set down his cooler and took off his one-piece sunglasses. His eyes were bloodshot slits. In his deep monotone, Dad said, “Let’s see a mobius flip,” referring to an old-school skiing trick. During the 70s and early 80s, Dad used to ski off twenty-foot boulders, extending his legs into huge spread-eagles, of which I’ve seen a few pictures.

After each of our tricks, Dad said, “Hell yeah,” or “Right on.” He watched us for a few minutes, cracking us up with filthy jokes. Suddenly, he said, “Seriously though, you guys don’t ride this thing much, do you?” His tone became gravelly. “You know you’re going to have to get rid of it soon. I don’t want this bullshit in my driveway anymore.”

An awkward silence momentarily hung between my friends and me after Dad went inside. Jared pedaled across the walkway, toward the ramp. As he rode up the quarter pipe, I yelled, “Do a mobius flip you fucking peter-eater!” Laughing, he steered off the side of the ramp so he wouldn’t eat shit. Steve and Bryan’s high-pitched laughter echoed off the retaining wall behind the quarter pipe.

  * * *

A month or so later, Steve and I drove to Denver to see a Metallica concert, which I’d constantly been thinking about since buying my ticket. Black Sabbath, Slayer, Pantera, and Metallica—I felt like I could depend on these bands in the same way as each of my friends.

Driving through Wyoming in my Tacoma, we passed towns that seemed like smaller and larger versions of Rock Springs—middle-class neighborhoods, gas stations, fast-food restaurants, and motels, all divided by large, empty lots and surrounded by sagebrush-covered hills. We listened to Master of Puppets, …And Justice for All, Ride the Lightning, and Kill ‘em All.

To me, everything Metallica recorded after The Black Album was bullshit. I liked The Black Album itself—the album with “Enter Sandman” that sent the band into super-stardom—but it didn’t come close to capturing the same energy in the first four albums. Together, Lars’s crazy double-bass drumming and James’ and Kirk’s gnarly guitar riffs form an aural assault.

I also loved the songs that move from delicate acoustic sections into crushing walls of heaviness—songs like “Fade to Black,” “Battery,” and “One.” The movements in these songs reminded me of classical music, sans pretension. Listening to early Metallica, I felt deeply connected with the young, death-obsessed and socially alienated brains of Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield, Cliff Burton, and Kirk Hammet. James, who, like me, had gnarly acne during his adolescence, sung lyrics about death as the only true escape from hopelessness.

Steve and I left a day before the concert to ride skate parks and street spots in and near Denver. On Sunday evening, we drove to a southern suburb, Aurora, trying to find a cement spillway called the hook that some local riders had told us about. As we drove on I-225, Steve spotted the structure, which sat on the edge of a golf course.

I parked at a nearby apartment complex. An empty drive led into the golf course. Steve and I walked our bikes under a chain with a ‘No Trespassing’ sign attached to it. We looked around the chain-link fence-enclosed golf course to make sure no one saw us. After Steve climbed the fence, I lifted each of our bikes over the top and into his reaching hands. When I jumped off the top of the fence, my shoes sunk into marshy ground beneath waist-high reeds and grass.

Painted dark green, the hook looked intimidating—fifteen feet tall and about one-hundred feet wide. Imagine a full pipe cut lengthwise, down the middle. The concrete monolith loomed above the grass of the golf course.

A dust-and-gravel-covered runway led to the massive transition. Before I even thought about mustering the balls to ride this thing, Steve pedaled at the hook. His tires crunched on gravel, then zipped when they hit the smooth cement of the transition. He reached the point where the transition curled, becoming over-vertical.

A pool of black muck sat about twenty feet away from the hook. Horseflies, dragonflies, mosquitoes, and gnats buzzed above plastic bags, beer cans, and other trash in the sewage. Immediately after gliding down the transition, Steve skidded to avoid this sludgy mess. The drone of nearby traffic echoed off the concrete wave.

I thought about Metallica’s “Seek and Destroy” to get myself psyched. Steve, Jared, Bryan, and I, like other BMX riders, often referred to riding as destroying. To me, destruction was an act of creating beauty.

“Seek and Destroy” features raw, punk-infused guitar riffs, pushed by Lars’s drumming and Cliff Burton’s manic bass playing. During the middle of the song, the band pushes boundaries of control with tempo. These sounds echoed in my brain as I pedaled toward the hook.

Climbing the transition, my tires zipped. At the height of my ascent, my right arm grazed cement that curved beyond ninety degrees.

After I carved it, the hook didn’t scare me as much. It was a humongous, unmoving cement structure, but I’d found my own way to use it.

BIO

jj anselmi 2J.J. Anselmi holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from CSU Fresno, where he also worked as the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of The Normal School. His work is upcoming in Weber: The Contemporary West, and has appeared in Word Riot, The Writing Disorder, Obsolete!, Copper Nickel, and elsewhere. Along with “Living Through Pantera” (published in the Summer 2012 issue of The Writing Disorder), this piece is part of J.J.’s book, Heavy: A Memoir of Wyoming, BMX, Drugs, and Heavy Fucking Music. A regular contributor to Splicetoday, J.J. loves beating the shit out of the drums for his doom band, Hymns to the Stone. He also just bought a new BMX bike.

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daniel carbone

In the Details

by Daniel Carbone

 

Carl believes he is Jesus. Not a metaphorical or a pretentious “fuck you” kind of Jesus. He believes he is the real thing. I want him to prove it, to show me what the son of God is like, but I’m worried he may stab me or set me on fire before the night is over if I upset him. I don’t try convincing him that he is a delusional psychopath who is no more like Jesus than I am like sour dough bread. Then again, I’ve never met Jesus. I don’t know anyone who has, and I think that perhaps Carl is exactly like him. Jesus was all into self-sacrifice too. Maybe when I watch Carl through the window in the backyard biting a tree, he is sacrificing the bark, the enamel of his teeth, for some reason other than obscurity. God works in mysterious ways.

He comes back into the house, grabs the glass pipe from Ella and takes a hit. He looks at me. “I used to bite my arms, my legs, sink my teeth into my skin until I would bleed, but it hurt too much. That’s why I bite the tree now. It hurts less,” he says, “but, but it’s less intimate.” He rubs his hands up and down across the hair and scars on his forearms. These are his public displays of mutilation.

I nod my head. I’m concerned that the wrong reaction will send him charging, sinking his teeth into my flesh instead of his own. Ella asks me if I want another beer or some wine and when I say both, she starts pouring the wine into my tall plastic glass. I indicate with my eyes to keep going when she is about to stop. I just met Carl, I just met Ella, and the alcohol makes what they say more believable. I enjoy the warm buzz it creates in my head. It makes it okay to become one of them.

Carl says he’s going to take a nap before we go to Maynard’s Cafe and he skips back into his room and I hear him close the door, slowly, trying to make the sound of it clicking shut seem as if it’s happening within a vacuum. “That’s your roommate?” I ask Ella.

“Yeah, that’s Carl,” she says. “People give me a hard time for taking him in, but Carl has a good heart. I couldn’t possibly turn him away.” Ella tells me she pays his rent. He looks homeless. If he really is Jesus, he traded in his seventies rock star look from his crucifixion days for a badly executed crew cut with large sections where he had completely buzzed off his hair. The well-kept goatee that Jesus displays in pictures and paintings had been replaced by a badly shaven face covered with cuts, and now he kind of looks like Popeye, the sailor. Carl is forty-four, Ella is twenty-three.

I am not interested in Ella. I thought I was while reading her online profile and talking to her, but I was impatient. I wanted to meet. And Carl—I didn’t even know he existed. Cut to the present and the only thing that keeps me from running out of the house and towards the ignition of my car is curiosity. These people—their relationships—fascinate me, and I think if I make it out alive, I’ll have plenty of material for whatever I write next. I no longer look at the night like a traditional date. It’s a date for information, a date for details, and Ella and Carl and whoever else participates in this evening are the characters that will illuminate the pages. I smile; more excited about the night than before, when I thought it would be a romantic night, when I had hopeful expectations.

It’s just Ella now, standing with her shoulders hunched forward with an old lady’s posture in the kitchen. I want to talk about Carl, about how unattractive she is to me, how repulsed I am by the whole situation yet strangely excited to fill empty pages with the little that has already happened. Instead, I ask about her best friend and her best friend’s boyfriend, who live upstairs, Leah and Chris, who she says will be joining us soon. “Where did you meet them?” I ask.

“I’m training Leah to be my replacement at work. And Chris—I met Chris on an online dating site too, but of course he had a huge crush on Leah. He only kept coming back for her,” she says. “It’s bad enough they hooked up. Now I have to hear them having sex above me every night.”

“Wow,” I say. “I promise I won’t have sex with any of your friends.” I can’t help thinking that would make an interesting story too. I put down the tall glass of wine I am holding and ask Ella where her bathroom is. I don’t use the filthy toilet, but I notice stains running up and down the walls by its side. I don’t wash my hands. I rub my eyes and look at myself in the mirror. Then I take notes in my phone. I’m already drunk. I don’t care if it’s rude. Ella just told me she was moving, that she got a job offer in Washington—that her old job ended and she wouldn’t be sticking around. I see no reason to perpetuate a lie, no reason to return her affection, when before we met I told her I wasn’t into short-term dating. She lied to me. I see no reason why I can’t enjoy myself and get something out of this misadventure, even if it comes at the expense of what she thinks of me.

I come back from the bathroom and I realize I have no idea what Ella does for a living. She told me before but I couldn’t comprehend the profession, forgetting what she told me almost immediately. I should ask Ella why she is still friends with Leah and Chris after they started dating, but I think it will be more interesting if I meet them and let the relationship play out for itself. Like a movie or book I’m experiencing for the first time—the details will be more vivid and exciting. I don’t really care about Ella’s feelings, but she is a part of this group, a part of the story, and I push her off to the side, willing her, forcing her to become the flat character I have already decided she is.

I chug the rest of my wine and she asks me if I want some more. She empties the bottle into my cup and I hope we leave for the bar soon before my buzz wears off. I take a seat on the recliner in the living room and she sits down across from me and picks up her banjo.

“So—do you know what you’re playing tonight?” I ask.

She tunes the banjo and strums different chords and strings while she talks. I shift my gaze towards Carl’s room. I wonder what he’ll do next, when he comes out. “Well, yes and no,” she says. “I think I’m going to read the poem “Pinocchio” by Shel Silverstein. Maybe one song. I’ve never played the banjo live before.”

“I’m sure you’ll do fine. You’ll do great. I’m excited.”

Leah and Chris barge through the front door with their arms wrapped around each other, dragging the strong smell of marijuana into a room already soaked with the scent, and Leah screams out a war cry of excitement that makes the panda hat she’s wearing look like it’s dying on top of her short-cropped red hair. The sound she makes is a loud-pitched wail, her hands high in the air and her eyes closed towards the ceiling.

If Carl thinks he is Jesus, Chris is John Lennon. Lennon’s glasses sit on his nose and the circular glass in the frames magnifies the pupils in his eyes. He’s tall and skinny and has an acoustic guitar strapped around his shoulder. I look behind him to see if Yoko Ono is following. I introduce myself to them and hand Chris one of Ella’s beers. I tell him to drink up. I make it a personal goal to make sure there will be no sober people tonight.

I met Ella on an online dating site. I wanted to meet alone. I wanted a personal introduction at a coffee shop or a bar or in a third world country, surrounded by malaria-infested mosquitoes—anywhere but here with a bunch of her friends whom I’d never met. They constantly stare at me. Leah keeps asking if I’m having a good time. She says I look like I’m bored, like I don’t like them. I don’t tell her that I’m studying them intensely, that my looks aren’t judgmental but perceptive. Ella told me her friends are cool, her friends are interesting, her friends are awesome. If she would have only added weird, I would have completely agreed.

“Chris, we need to practice this song,” Ella says. “Did you hear me, Lennon? We need to be at the bar by seven, and I haven’t practiced yet.” Chris doesn’t lower his beer. He raises the bottom of it higher to force the alcohol down this throat faster, dragging the oxygen away from the corners of the can by his lips, and I want to tell Lennon to wait for me to grab a beer so I can join him. I use the distraction he creates to write in the note sections of my phone, “Lennon,” over and over again, all in capital letters. Then besides that note, I write, “Goofy, Leah and Chris, hippy hipsters.” I hope what I write makes sense to me in the morning. When Chris finishes his beer, he swings the guitar over his shoulder and goes behind the counter of the kitchen.

“You should have practiced. We don’t have a lot of time.”

“If you got the weed earlier,” Ella says. “How was I supposed to practice without you, exactly?”

“I’m going to get a private show, then, huh?” I say. Ella smiles and plugs in her keyboard.

“Ready,” Chris says. “One, two, three, four.”

They play the song “We Are Young” by Fun a few times, never making it through the second stanza. Ella doesn’t hold notes down long enough during the chorus. When they finally get their timing right, they play through the song, and Leah and I listen, happy spectators. I can’t help but smile in her direction more than in Ella’s. I don’t find either girl attractive—Ella is a liar and a hippie and physically unattractive and boring. She has nothing interesting to say, nothing interesting to offer, and I don’t know what I saw in her when I messaged her on the dating site for that first time. I think I was just looking for something to do, a distraction from the feelings I had for someone else I couldn’t be with. Leah has something to offer me, though—a panda hat. A comparison to Ella, the girl I follow for the story, like a reporter following a soldier in a war zone, not for the solider, but for the action he will ultimately lead her to. And I hope Carl is an active Jesus who will help the story, and me, along. I hope God really does help those who help themselves.

“I’m just here for moral support,” Leah yells into my ear.

“Huh? Yeah, I have no idea what’s going on,” I say, and smile. “I’m just trying not to get in the way.” They play through the entire song, Chris singing like any proper Lennon would, without disturbing the excitement in the room, and the song seems nostalgic and perfect for the evening. I write the song’s name down in the notepad of my phone, having never heard it before, but knowing I’ll want to listen to it the next day.

When Chris strums the final chord Leah throws her hands in the air. “And the crowd goes wild!” she says.

“You guys are awesome,” I say. And I think I mean it.

Ella goes back into her room and changes her clothes. When she comes out of the room, she is wearing a tight tie dye t-shirt that shows her weight spilling over the side of her jeans and hugging the fabric of the shirt, stretching it beyond its designed size. I’m glad she pulls her jeans up high above her waistline—it prevents her stomach or her backside from popping out into the open where they’re not welcome to be seen. Closely behind her, Carl is following her into the room, shirtless. The circus is in town.

“Carl’s not coming to Maynard’s,” Ella says to Leah and Chris.

“Why not?” Chris says.

“He’s sad,” Ella says. Carl grabs a beer and lights a cigarette. “He’s upset that I’m moving.”

“No, Ella. It’s that neighbor. I swear, when you move, I’m leaving too. If these people don’t want me here, I don’t want to be here.” He takes two slices of pizza from the rack in the oven.

“What happened?” I ask.

“Our neighbor called the cops on him. He was trying to record Carl speaking, so Carl went and took a shit on his car, and then the neighbor, he called the cops.” I feel guilty, for a second, and realize I need to be more careful about my note taking. I don’t want to have to clean feces off my car. That neighbor has access to Carl and these people on a daily basis, and whatever other odd people lived in the area. He had the idea before me. I just hope he’s a poor writer.

“I’ll tell you what—Dan? You said your name’s Dan, right?” Carl says. “Dan, these people don’t understand. They don’t get what I’m trying to do. They’re all ungrateful. They don’t appreciate me. What did I tell you, Ella? Huh? I told you. What did I say? Yesterday I said there was going to be no more bad weather and what happened?”

“Today was beautiful.” Ella turns her back towards Carl and looks at me and rolls her eyes into the back of her head. Carl is serious. He believes he is Jesus. A bitter Jesus disappointed about the ignorance and weakness of his followers. You’d think he’d understand, I mean, after being crucified and all, that humans are imperfect.

“That’s right, Ella. If these people don’t appreciate what I’m trying to do, then fine, I’ll go somewhere else.”

Leah and Chris are sitting in the living room that connects to the kitchen. They aren’t paying much attention to Carl. I notice the guitar of Carl’s that Ella showed me earlier. Carl made it himself. Ram’s horns have been morphed into the frame of the guitar, wrapping around and protruding out of the edges of the solid dark wood, ending where the frets begin. It looks incredibly intricate and detailed, beautiful in a horrific way, but it doesn’t seem saintly. I can’t remember if it’s “God is in the details” or whether the saying is “The Devil is in the details.”

“Ella, do you have any cigarettes. I’m out,” Carl says. “Ella, do you think you could buy me cigarettes?”

“I’ll buy you cigarettes if you come watch me play.”

“Okay, Ella. For you, darling. I’ll go for you. Call me when you are about to go on. I’ll walk over.”

I shove Ella’s keyboard in between my body and my arm and we are getting ready to walk over to the bar, Maynard’s Café, a few blocks down the street. Chris leaves his guitar strapped around his shoulder and Ella brings a laptop bag and video camera. Leah is carrying a large beach bag, which she fills with beer.

“What are we going to do with this?” she asks.

“We can just hide it outside the bar,” Chris says, “or you can bring some of it in your bag. We’ll just go outside when we want a beer.”

“Okay, but I can’t carry that much,” Leah says.

“We’re only five minutes away,” Ella says, her glasses slipping down her nose. “We can just run back and grab more. Come on, let’s go. We’re already late.” I hold open the door for the three of them and they start walking down the dark streets crusted in the smell of ocean and the decay of the beach town of Margate just outside of Atlantic City.

We pass a Wawa convenience store and cross streets without looking both ways, and Chris starts singing the song they played earlier. Everyone joins in, and even though I don’t know the lyrics, I attempt to mouth the words of the stanzas and sing what I know of the chorus. When they finish singing the song, they start over from the beginning. Ella puts her arm around my shoulder and it feels awkward and uncomfortable. I don’t lean in. She leaves my side and walks close to Leah and starts talking to her, leaving me in the back, playing follow-the-leader, where I can observe them without fear of being caught recording.

I see the bar and it’s a dive. It is one of those outside bars with a roof and four walls giving the illusion of a building but not the heat or insulation. I walk into the bar and see that it’s worse than I thought. People are smoking cigarettes and the air is cloudy with tar. In each corner of the small bar is a fake fireplace emitting heat, and we claim a spot in the corner by the stage near the heater. I look around the bar and see a world I’ve only seen in movies. A tall blind guy sits behind the bar, clutching the reins of his Seeing Eye dog. He must be running the audio equipment. Either that or the owners of the bar let him run his fingers through the dozens of wires and play with the knobs of the equalizer before the show begins. It gives his dog something to do, as he is trying to untangle himself from the wires that the man has shoved the dog into. The sign on the bar says beers are two dollars for a draft, and I can’t believe we went through the effort of dragging a twelve pack of beer into the bar in our bags and pockets. I see the guitarist Ewan Dobson, who lives locally and occasionally plays free open mic nights to hone his skills. He is relatively famous and I wonder if I could add that detail to whatever writing comes out of this night, but I’m not so sure. Then again, I know sometimes a writer jots down a lot more than he uses, and I take note of his presence.

After a few hours, Ella is spending most of her time talking to other patrons of the bar, and Leah and Chris are making out. Dobson is playing a twelve-string guitar and he plays so quickly that my eyes fail to follow his fingers dancing up and down the fret board. I close my eyes and let my mind get lost, using the loudness of the music as an excuse to remain silent, and I think this is exactly where I want to be, away from everyone, alone, but feeling more connected to the life of the town, the setting, the characters that I am creating in my head for my next story, than I could have in an empty room.

Eventually, Ella rests her body beside me. She inches close to me. I keep my arms in at my sides and my hands on my lap, and I don’t turn in her direction. I wonder if my next online dating experience will be this productive. I’m excited to find out. We don’t talk much and in between our conversations I find myself texting my roommates—who are excited by the prospect of me spending the night with Ella—about the date and taking more notes in my cell phone for further reference. I tell my roommate no, that I’m not into her, that I’m out late because this is too interesting to walk away from, that I’m having a good time, a good experience, and I have a fun story to tell her tomorrow, and I snap my phone shut, but it’s too late. Ella catches me.

“Are you texting, right now?” she says.

“My roommates were worried,” I say. “I just wanted to let them know I’ll be back later.” She looks down and lets out a nervous laugh and shakes her head. She isn’t pleased. I shrug it off in a conversation with myself. A few minutes later, still sitting beside me, Ella starts texting random people religiously. I think she is trying to do to me as I have done to her, but it doesn’t bother me. I’m not jealous. I’m happy she has a distraction.

We run out of money and the three of us want to drink some more before Ella and Chris’s set. I think more alcohol could lead to a more interesting set, and I encourage the idea, telling Ella that she will be a lot less nervous if she drinks a little bit more. We go outside and pull the beers out of their hiding places. Leah pulls one from her back pocket and Chris untangles one in the webbing that lines the inside of his jacket. Everyone else grabs one from the beach bag. Then we walk around the corner of the building and attempt to chug some beers, but all of us fail. It is cold. We are shivering. When we are about to go back inside Carl shows up screaming and yelling in the parking lot of Maynard’s and Ella runs over and pulls him away. The second coming isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I want to run over and help, to grab some insight, to find out how the world will end and if I have time to publish this story before it happens, but Ella tells me to wait with Leah and Chris. She comes back a few minutes later, having pawned Carl off on an older woman whom I don’t know. Ella leaves again to talk to Carl and doesn’t come back.

“So what’s with Carl?” I ask Leah and Chris.

“He’s crazy,” Leah says. “Ella always wakes up to him screaming or banging his head against the floor. She says he cuts himself and beats himself to represent what society is doing to itself. He thinks he’s some kind of martyr.”

“Yeah,” Chris says, “one time, he said he was going to make flowers grow, and the next day Ella got a call from her parents that there were dandelions outside their house that weren’t there before. Sometimes she buys into that garbage.”

“I heard the story about the weather,” I say. “I didn’t have the heart, or maybe not the courage, to tell him I knew that too. The weather channel can be useful. The least he could have done was made the night warm as well.”

Leah and Chris are shivering as one, so I lead the way back into the bar and we take our seats next to the glowing television-like fireplace. Ella is inside setting up her keyboard, getting ready to play her set. Carl is in the back of the bar, apparently calm now, standing against the wall, talking to the older woman.

“Ella, do you know what you’re playing? I think it’s time to decide,” I say.

She shrugs and tells me the poem by Shel Silverstein and the folk song “Circles of the Sun” by Sally Rogers. The owner of the bar introduces her and she sits on the stool with the banjo strapped around her neck, red in the face and clearly drunk, and she trips on her own feet and almost falls off the stool, despite the fact that she is sitting. She recites the poem, but I only hear the first stanza. “Pinocchio, Pinocchio, that little wooden bloke-io. His nose, it grew an inch or two with every lie he spoke-io,” she says, stumbling. Jesus leans against the wall and watches his roommate, his provider, embarrass herself, and I think it’s ironic. Someone could pull her off the stage after the poem, to prevent further disaster, but Jesus reincarnated in Carl form doesn’t do anything. If he’s not going to do anything, the merciful one, I decide I certainly can’t either. What would Jesus do?

Once she finishes the poem, she sings the short folk song, and the few people left in the bar clap unenthusiastically. Then Chris goes up and he plays the song with her that they rehearsed earlier, and then he plays a few songs by himself. After they kick us out of the closing bar, we walk back to Ella’s apartment, with the equipment in our hands. When we get back, Carl is already at the apartment in the backyard, sitting in the tree he had bitten earlier, playing a banjo. God is in the details, I think. The saying is definitely God is in the details. I wonder if I should protect the tree from Carl, or maybe just patch the dozens of empty areas where he has bitten off bark. We walk past him and into the house and Ella fills her glass pipe with more weed and hands it me. I don’t typically smoke, but I take a hit and hold the smoke in my mouth before blowing it out into the room, refusing to inhale so I don’t get high, and pass it to Leah, who takes one hit and falls to pieces. Ella and Chris call her the “one hit wonder” and within minutes I understand the name when her eyes get bloodshot and she becomes the clown version of a catatonic person, unmoving with an enormous giggly smile on her face and a set of red circles in her eyes. Chris, concerned, wants to put her to bed, and he takes her by the hand and leads her out the door, outside, towards their apartment on the second floor.

“It was nice to meet you both,” I say, and shake Chris’s hand.

“Yeah, it was fun. I hope to see you again.”

Ella packs the rest of her drugs into the glass pipe and hands it to Carl, who has walked back into the apartment. He finishes off the entire pipe in under a minute. He says she should have known better. Then when he asks Ella if he can borrow money so he can run to Wawa and buy milk for coffee, she tells him no, that she has no money left for him. He starts digging pennies out of drawers, picking them up off the floor, and fishing them out of little nooks all over the apartment. He collects a little bit and says he has about a dollar, but he’s not sure if that will be enough. Ella refuses to give him any money, but watching Carl, Jesus, crawling on his hands and knees and collecting pennies for milk makes me feel sick. I don’t know who I feel bad for; Carl, Ella, myself, or the attendant who will have to count the pennies, but I decide to give Carl the money. It feels like charity, but he doesn’t refuse. He acts like he wants it. When I hand him the money he shakes my hand and cups the hand he shakes with his other hand, like he was getting a peace treaty from the president. He looks me in the eyes when he does it and holds onto to my hand tightly. His smile terrifies me, but I don’t know if it is because of the way he looks at me and says “thank you” or if I’m terrified at the thought of this man being Jesus. What if he really is Jesus? I could never really know the truth.

“Okay, this has been fun,” Ella says, “but I need to go to sleep. Dan, you can stay here with Carl if you don’t think you’re okay to drive.”

“No, no. I’m fine.” I walk around the kitchen counter and hug Ella. “It was nice to meet you. I had a great night.” There is no romance in the hug, but I mean what I say. I avoid shaking hands with Carl, but I tell him I had a good time, and that I’ll see him again soon. I don’t mean it, but I don’t feel the need to explain my desire to leave.

When I get to my car I sit in the driver’s seat for a couple minutes contemplating the night I have just experienced—the people, Ella, Carl, the odd romantic triangle between the friends—and how I should interpret the evening and the characters I have created. Lennon, Jesus, the stereotypical Hippie Ella, and Leah, who I think forms a subcategory within the hipster demographic. I can’t help thinking that it was one of the least successful romantic experiences of my life, but all I can do is smile and laugh. I’m laughing, alone, trapped in my car, away from people at four in the morning, and I enjoy every second of it. But then, I begin to cry. I don’t know exactly why I am crying. I am drunk. All I know is that something is missing, that the characters aren’t as complete as they could be, and I want to go back inside and talk to Carl and Ella again. I’d like to sit down with Carl and interview him, gather his entire life story, but I still don’t think the character and the person could ever become one and the same. I look through the notes I took in my phone. I didn’t realize how diligent I was during the evening with my observations. There are over twenty separate notes, literally pages of notes, but I have no better sense of who Jesus and his friends are. The notes are snippets, fragments of a person, and the story itself is only a series of short moments in time, forming an evening. It’s not complete. The story, the characters, never will be. I drive away with the notes in my phone, knowing they, the notes, the events, and the people will make a great story, but that I will never see them again, that whatever I write, the full story, will still be my creation. “Jesus H. Christ,” I think.

 

 

BIO

daniel carboneDaniel Carbone was born in Howell, NJ. In 2012 he graduated with an academic standing of magna cum laude from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and accepted a scholarship to the Rutgers Camden University School of Law shortly thereafter. He has served as an editor for Stockton’s Stockpot literary magazine and published his first short story under the same title in 2011. While busy studying law, he continues to find time to write for readers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry to satisfy his need to tell thought-provoking stories. He resides in his hometown with his Fiancé, Stephanie.

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Melissa Palmer

Breaking the Silence

by Melissa Palmer

 

“We’ll need to address your daughter’s depression.” The doctor had said it as if it were an afterthought, a plate of French fries tacked on to the side of the main course, her autism. My seven year-old has a high functioning form of ASD some doctors still refer to as Asperger’s. It’s characterized by anxiety, repetitive movements, concrete thinking and an inability to read other people’s emotions as well as several other idiosyncratic behaviors that my husband and I, and even her little sister had gotten used to. But depression? Depression was no side dish, not for me. It was the first time in my experience as a mother that I ever thought-Please, not my kid.

It seems so silly now thinking about that, that those words were the first to go through my head, considering by then we’d already gone through a full school year with Pippy’s diagnosis. We had a full year knowing there was a reason why she twitched and pulled her hair, why she was petrified of toilet sounds and bright lights, why she grunted and ate paper. For a full year we had the answers we’d been searching since she was just a little baby. And we had gone even longer than that knowing we have to speak literally, that a phrase like I love you to the moon and back serves no purpose in her world but to confuse. We’d also had plenty of time to get used to the way other kids looked at her on playgrounds when she spoke in gibberish or repeated strange sounds, or at parties when she professed her name was Tobor the Robot or that she was “a little girl from Greece named Vanessa who doesn’t talk.” We’d had plenty of time to get used to all of it. But yet it was on that day that I felt dread. Because of one single word.

I watched my mother struggle with bipolar disorder through my entire childhood. From the first time I could remember until the last time I saw her, there was a battle going on inside of her. She was the most beautiful and creative person I’d ever met, the singing, loving, kind Mommy who had a joke or story for every occasion and a spot at the dinner table for any kid in the neighborhood who needed one. But then a switch would flip and either anger or sadness would win out and pull her away from us for days at a time. Sometimes she would drift off to a quiet, unspeaking place. Those days she would lay on the couch still as a rock, and we knew not to bother her for snacks or tying shoes. On others she would rage over math papers or badly posed pictures, pulling frames from the wall and breaking them to pieces. All of that seemed difficult but none so much as the silence we all maintained to keep it hidden away. We never talked about the illness, to anyone. Nor did we acknowledge that sometimes mom went away for months at a time for treatment.

For whatever reason, we were told not to. Everyone close to me told me to leave it alone, to never tell anyone that mom was sick or crazy even though I never thought of her as either. I just knew she was hurting. But even as such I couldn’t tell, because there were kids who would make fun of me they said. Sure, there were. But crappy kids are crappy kids. If it wasn’t mental illness, they would have cracked on my overbite or my cheap shoes. But my family didn’t see it that way. It was supposed to be a secret. What was worse was everyone talked to my mother like she was a big, dumb child. And when they weren’t talking to her, they were talking about her like she wasn’t there and that was what hurt her even more. My family wanted to protect me. But I felt like I was the only one protecting her.

When no one was around my mom would tell me that she felt stupid, like she didn’t have the mental power to control what was happening inside her mind, like only a weak woman needed mommy’s little helper pills to make the world an easier place. Back then it was the 80’s, and that was the common idea. And even now, I wish I could go back in time and tell her it just wasn’t so.

My mom hated taking those pills. She would ditch them for days and then start spiraling down. So then she’d have to double or triple her dose, and end up sleeping for days which would make her skip pills all over again. It was a vicious cycle that rolled halfway into the next decade until it became too much for her heart to take. To this day I think the stigma had just as much to do with her suicide as the illness itself.

Stigma is probably why I dragged my feet the first time we had to see the new psychiatrist that day in the office. I didn’t want anyone making my daughter feel like she was sick or crazy. I wasn’t going to let anybody put that on my little girl. Pippy has her quirks and her anxieties. At night she has violent nightmares, and she has an irrational fear of accidental poisoning but I always thought of it all as manageable. I didn’t want her to have to relive all of that information with a new doctor, with a stranger. And I was trying to protect her.

That day I heard my second grader tell a virtual stranger that she had thought about killing herself. I looked at my little girl and saw my mother’s suffering eyes.

The doctor asked, “Would you be willing to try medication?”

I’d be willing to go to the damn moon and back.

 

 

 

melissa palmerBIO

Melissa Palmer is also the author of A Life Less Normal, a memoir examining the life of a woman child growing up in the shadow of mental illness with the support of her proverbial north Jersey crime family. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize for short fiction “Mrs. MacMillan’s Garden” which was the inspiration and backbone of Twin Oaks. She was nominated for the Eric Hoffer Prize for short fiction for her story “Blood”. But of all the honors she was most touched when the McStorytellers named her an honorary Scot for her story “At This Moment”. Her work has been featured by Hospital Drive, Best New Writing, The Quotable, and The Writing Disorder among others. Her short stories range from absurd to dark and in a former life she wrote a prize winning haiku for the show Spaceghost Coast to Coast. In her spare time she wrangles Newfoundlands, two precocious girls, and one very handsome cat with the help of a strong silent drink of water with whom she shares her life. She is never not writing, frequently baking, and always a little off-center.

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The Writing Disorder Presents

 

Camera Simon

My Leica M – with 50/1.4 ASPH, and old 35/1.4 from 1960’s in my studio, Chungju, South Korea, 2012.

The Simon Larbalestier Interview | The Writing Disorder

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Drop Cap Simon Larbalestier is without a doubt a master photographer. He’s been working at his craft for years, creating a body of work that is both inspiring and indelible. His  style has influenced a generation of photographers. It’s a vision that puts him squarely in the class of great photographers. From his dreamy black and white images, to his stark, beautiful figures and locations, Simon creates a world you almost can’t describe. Known for his work with the iconic record label, 4AD, which began back in the 1980s, and for his images of remote, exotic lands, Simon’s work covers a wide range of topics and styles. We talked with Simon recently, to learn more about his work, and the creative process.

 

When did you first take an interest in photography?

SIMON: When I was studying on my Foundation Course at Jacob Kramer, Leeds, UK in 1979/80 we had a makeshift darkroom in our studio with which the “roof” was made of lengths of wood for making stretchers for paint canvases—and invariably it would leak light as people pulled the wood from the pile above! Anyway the immediacy and the flexibility of the medium struck a deep cord with me at that time even if most of my resulting prints ended up being fogged in the intermittent light leaks!

 

Partial to the Picture

“Partial to the Picture,” interview with Creative Photography, December 1985

 

Talk about your first camera, and the type of equipment you had back then.

SIMON: I started out with a brand new Olympus OM4 and backed up by an old OM2n that I preferred to its more expensive brother. I only had one lens that was a wide-angle 24mm (I don’t know why I didn’t get the standard 50/1.8 which was excellent!)

 

Did you develop your own film?

SIMON: Back in the days of my BA in Newcastle Upon Tyne (1981-84) the answer would be no, as everything was fed through the machine – at that time I was primarily interested in just making the prints and then photocopying them and pasting them into my collages. But later during my Masters at the Royal College of Art (RCA) (1985-87) then I become obsessed with controlling everything from shoot to print and I began to explore all facets of film developing and printing my own negatives.

 

You have a Masters Degree of Art. Talk about the kinds of tools and techniques being used/taught back then.

SIMON: I was mostly interested in working with Polaroid Type 55 film—this is the kind with a peel apart and printable negative. The negative itself required some care and attention with careful washing and drying, but its high detail, fine grain and of course the beautiful and random edge borders of the negative made it a winner in my eyes.

 

Simon Pixies cover

Paired Polaroid Type 55’s from Masters Degree (1985-87) which were later licensed for the Pixies’ first EP “Come on Pilgrim” (4AD Records/1987)

 

At what age did music become important to you? What bands or music were you listening to then?

SIMON: I think around 12-14, I began to listen to Patti Smith, Neil Young, Rush, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and many others.

 

What were some of the first photographs that made an impression you?

SIMON: I think the early work when at the RCA, I won a traveling scholarship to Greece and shot everything with my OM2 and a Fuji 645 folder—that was the beginning of work that would underpin my huge Odysseys’ series.

 

Simon Image

Greek Orthodox Votives, Hania, Crete, Greece, 1985. From the series “Odysseys I (1985-1999)”

Xania Book Simon

Working Notebook from the award RCA Basil Alkazzi traveling scholarship (1987)

 

When did you switch to digital photography? What are the pros and cons of digital work?

SIMON: It was during 2008, I was working between SE Asia (mainly Thailand and Cambodia) and the UK. I had several projects on the go, some with short deadlines. I had a fantastic commission to shoot 13 Charles Dickens book covers for Vintage over a couple of years. The first three I dutifully shot in film, as until that point I was a 100% involved with only film cameras. But I blew my limited book budgets all at once and soon realized that if I was to retain my fee per book I had to seriously rethink. So I took the plunge and bought the diminutive Ricoh GRD II a 10MP compact with a fixed 28mm lens. I had its analogue brother and the lens was quite outstanding in its rendition. The compact worked well but the learning curve was working with the RAW files in early versions of Photoshop 3 and Lightroom 2. In the summer of 2008 Vaughan Oliver gave me the Pixies Minotaur project and this seemed an ideal project to push the GRD II further. I was based in SE Asia and for 3 months. I shot exclusively with this compact in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. I returned to the UK later in October and presented my working folder of images to Vaughan and so began the project. The little compact enabled me to get very close to my subject matter and work very discretely and as I shot in RAW format. I had the choice of working in color or monochrome (In the end I worked with both). So the break into digital enabled me to embrace color in a way I have never been able to do with film, though I spent years trying.

 

Figure Image Simon

“Cuban,” Bangkok, Thailand, 2008. From the Pixies’ Minotaur Project (Artists in Residence, 2009)

Glove Simon Image

“Glove,” Bangkok, Thailand, 2008. From the Pixies’ Minotaur Project (Artists in Residence, 2009)

 

You’ve created an impressive body of work over the years. So many fantastic images. Which of your images do you display in your house? Where else is your work displayed?

SIMON: Thank you, Christian, very kind of you to say! I have very few displayed where I am living in NE Thailand, but the most important of all is a panoramic image of my children, Jack and Lucy, shot when they were in their mid-teens at one our favorite locations in North Yorkshire. I have moved 14 times in almost as many years since leaving the UK in 2001, and that picture goes everywhere. My middle brother Nic has the best collection by far but there are other avid collectors who have supported my work over the years, friends, colleagues and print clients.

 

Man Woman Image Simon

My children Jack and Lucy, North Yorkshire (circa 2008).

 

What are some of your favorite cameras to work with?

SIMON: I think it very much depends what I am working on—right now I am very happy with what I have and it’s a pretty basic but expensive set up (Leica M9, fast 50 and 35/1.4 lenses, an old Nikkor 105 telephoto with a Leica M fitting, and a couple of the new Sony’s RX1, and its smaller sister the RX100) I get the results I want with this gear and I can work from mid telephoto down to macro, so all my bases are covered.

I do have a brace of Leica M’s, an Xpan and two unique 120 film 6×7/6×9 cameras back in the UK, but I very rarely uses them these days.

 

You’ve traveled all over the world. What are some of your favorite spots? Where would you still like to visit?

SIMON: I love NE Thailand where I am now, I love Bangkok, Vietnam was interesting but Cambodia was the place I photographed the most up until the summer of 2008. I would like to visit South America, Russia and Japan.

 

Simon On Location

“Me, working with The Cambodia Trust”, Kampot Province, Cambodia, 2005 © Sothea Chea.

 

When you’re given a new project, where do you begin?

SIMON: Reading usually. Getting a feel for the subject.

 

Do you prefer to work in a group, or on your own?

SIMON: Alone always.

 

When did you first meet graphic designer, Vaughan Oliver? How did you get involved with 4AD?

SIMON: I first met him just after graduating from Newcastle Polytechnic, that would have been 1984/5, just before I began my Masters Degree in London. I showed him all of my third year project, which was mostly decayed buildings—not at all applicable to music sleeves (or so I thought … years later the image of the Tuscan bed, used for the first Red House Painter’s LP, Down Colorful Hill 1992), had all of these ingredients of my very early photo collages). He was very receptive and because of his interest I invited him to my degree show at the RCA in the summer 1987, and from that point on we began on the Pixies project.

 

Red House Painters Simon

“Bed” Tuscany, Italy, 1989, licensed for the LP cover of
“Down Colorful Hill” by Red House Painters (4AD/1992)

 

What was your first project with 4AD like?

SIMON: Not counting the licensing of the first two images of the Pixies EP Come on Pilgrim, technically the first project was Surfer Rosa and this was one of the few times that Vaughan Oliver and I were actually in the same room during a shoot. I think there’s enough printed already and posted on the Internet to explain what that shoot was like but I will say this: Never at the time did I consider the impact those images would have on my photographic future (these impacts were dually positive and negative over the years) had I realized this I might have paid much greater attention to negatives that I actually threw away—like this one!

 

Woman Pixies Simon

One of the original “Surfer Rosa” Polaroid Type 55’s from
the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa shoot, Wandsworth, London, 1988.

 

What was it like working with such an esteemed label?

SIMON: I didn’t consider them in that light at the time. I was working simultaneously with many blue chip clients so 4AD was just one of them at the time—only later I think did the gravitas of what 4AD stood for in terms of creative music and artwork become apparent to me.

 

Did the music impress you at the time you first heard it? Is that what you listened to, or were you into other bands?

SIMON: I really liked Wolfgang Press, Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil and the Cocteau Twins. Not the Pixies, on first listening though. I did grow to love the songs on Doolittle. I was into many other bands, mainly rock and ambient music.

 

Did everyone hangout together and get along?

SIMON: I had a very young family so I spent my time either in the darkroom or at home, so I can’t comment on that.

 

What are some of your favorite 4AD albums you photographed?

SIMON: Come on Pilgrim, Surfer Rosa, Doolittle, Here Comes Your Man, River Euphrates, Down Colorful Hill, and Piano.

 

Pixies Doolittle Simon

Pixies Doolittle promotional postcards (4AD records/1988)

 

With 4AD you created such a mystique and aura. The music and the imagery went hand in hand. It was like your created an entire dream world. Was that your intention?

SIMON: A lot has been written about all that and in a way that has destroyed the mystery of how we all worked—hindsight and reflection has killed the legends and myths which makes the work so intriguing. I think the only thing I would say now is that yes it was my intention to create my own visual way of thinking not so much a dream world as one of nightmares and a vision of hell!

 

Who are some of your favorite photographers?

SIMON: In no particular order of preference I like Edward Weston, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Duane Michals, Arthur Tress, Gary Winogrand, Ralph Gibson, Dieter Appelt, Mary Ellen Mark, Bruce Chatwin, Philip Jones Griffiths, James Whitlow Delano, Tom Stoddart, Eugene Richards, James Nachtwey, Sebastião Salgado, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, Richard Misrach and Jeff Wall. But my perhaps if I had to choose only one favorite it would be have to be Wim Wenders.

 

Where do you call home?

SIMON: The Chaiyaphum Province of North East Thailand.

 

What do you do for fun these days?

SIMON: Ride my dirt bike out to the jungle temples and generally exploring and documenting NE Thailand, and most importantly quality time with my families both in Thailand and the UK.

 

Motorbike Simon

My bike on the way to work, Chaiyaphum Province, Thailand, 2013.

 

What is your advice for designers and photographers just starting out today?

SIMON: Spend a lot of time researching and refining your own creative voice and develop your own visual working methodology. Looking at other photographers for inspiration is a redundant method in my opinion, as you really need to discover your own interests and beliefs so that you create work that has your own unique stamp on it. Most of the books I read about other photographers was how they lived, though, and not what they photographed. Ansel Adams, Wim Wenders and Edward Weston represent the classic example. Fred Picker also with his Zone System. You also need a deep internal drive to make the work and have a lot of stamina, as there are always knockbacks.

 

Do you spend a lot of time on the internet? What sites do you frequent most?

SIMON: I try not to because it eats up a lot of time. I would rather be out photographing, but the cataloging of my work to raise its online presence requires me to frequent FaceBook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and even Flickr. I also spend time on my WordPress blog sites, and of course my Photoshelter online photo archive.

 

What are some of your upcoming projects?

SIMON: Without giving too much away my current self directed projects are “Ash,” “Cyphers,” “Husk” and the forth one is what might be Part V of the Odyssey’s series but really I need a more specific title for this so it’s still in the working stages of development.

 

Brush Simon

New works in Progress from the series “Ash” Chaiyaphum Province, Thailand, 2014.

House Simon

New works in Progress from a new series with the working title “Odysseys V”, Chaiyaphum Province, Thailand, 2014.

Statue Simon

New works in Progress from a new series with the working title “Odysseys V”, Chaiyaphum Province, Thailand, 2014.

 

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

SIMON: As I spend my life in a place that has its Buddhist culture based on the present moment I think that looking forward 10 years is no longer relevant what matters to me is what happens in the here and now.

 

With everyone having access to a camera and video, where do you see art/commercial photography heading?

SIMON: That’s a very hard one to answer but the billions of images now available online has saturated our visual world and destroyed our sense of patience, intrigue and mystery for looking at image. They are read so quickly and then discarded or replaced by the click of a mouse or mobile device track pad.

 

Can you develop a creative eye, or is it something you’re born with? How did you develop your talent and skills?

SIMON: I honed mine over the years but the 6 years of academic training (Foundation Degree, BA and MA Degrees) were the roots of my creative thinking.

 

Do you like working in Photoshop? How much do you use it—when and where do you use it? What other software programs do you use and like?

SIMON: The use of Photoshop first came into play around 2005/2006 when I was starting to scan a very large body of documentary work that was shot mostly in Cambodia and Thailand between 2001 and continued up until 2008. After painstakingly scanning each negative (35mm and 120mm) on an Imacon virtual-drum scanner, Photoshop was then used to clone out all the dust and other negative imperfections which was largely the same action as hand-spotting my prints. I still use Photoshop now (the latest CC version), to do the heavy lifting when cleaning up negative scans and RAW files. For cataloging, captioning and exporting of the final TIFF versions, I prefer to work in Adobe’s Lightroom 5. As files can be opened in Photoshop easily from Lightroom and then saved back into Lightroom, the workflow between the two is quite seamless and fast. I often utilize a couple of the Nik range of software plugins (now owned and distributed by Google) especially Silver Efex for my black and white work. Sometimes I also work in Capture One (lastest version) particularly for my color work but its user interface is quite different and the final files are still exported into Lightroom for final captioning, key-wording, color space assignment and export settings. I have always viewed my digital approach in much the same way as my analogue darkroom thinking methodology; in that the final image is always a result of a combination of different elements. What I mean is this: in the traditional darkroom, it’s the combination of film developers, specific enlarger types with light-sources, particular lenses and then the right combination of chemistry and paper emulsion to achieve the specific results I want. In the case of the digital workflow; it’s the combination of softwares and subtle plugins to achieve a similar effect. The approach is really just the same except that the digital workflow takes place in daylight on a computer screen and is much less engaging and meditative!

 

Seahorse Simon

New works in Progress from a new series with the working title “Cyphers”, Chaiyaphum Province, Thailand, 2014.

 

Also, talk about working in the studio versus working on location, the benefits and drawbacks, and your preference.

SIMON: I spent most of my time between 1987 and 2000 shooting within my studio with holiday periods allocated to shooting outside and on location. The majority of my commissioned work required me being in the studio so that clients or art directors could come and visit me and take a Polaroid back to their client for approval. So working in the studio was a highly controlled and somewhat sterile creative environment. I much preferred the looseness and freedom of shooting locations but it rarely paid the bills! When I began to consider a move away from the UK in 1999 I began to spend longer periods of time in Europe and a brief visit to the USA. In 2001 I spent the first 4 months in Australia where I began to really focus on my landscape and more documentary approach. The later part of 2001 was spent in Thailand, Northern India, Laos and Cambodia and this really opened my eyes. In January 2002 I relocated to Bangkok and remained there until October last year (2013) when a decision was made to relocate up to North East Thailand, in the province of Chaiyaphum. During this long period I also spent a year back in the UK (2009-10) and 12 months in South Korea (2012-13) though my base was always Bangkok. Much of my early time (2002-2008) was spent in Cambodia where I shot most of my work and this was all shot with film cameras. Most of my work up until the summer of 2001 had always excluded people (the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa series was a rare exception) but with the radical the shift to a totally new culture and environment, it was inevitable that in meeting and growing to deeply respect the people within these cultures, my approach would begin to become more social documentary in its nature. I spent a number of years photographing the social care of Khmer families who were supported by the UK charity The Cambodia Trust. This was a real eyeopener for me in that I got to visit areas well off the tourist track and into villages deep within the Cambodian provinces. I saw and photographed many aspects and was a witness to family situations that I will never forget. The Cambodia Trust supported families that had severely disabled members and had set up outreach centers to target those families that required help and support. Children born disabled were often shunned in society and sometimes kept hidden away in the rudimentary family home – it was these places that I visited. The support system was such that some of these children (with the families’ agreement) would be helped with medical aids (crutches, leg braces etc) and with physiotherapy training would become able-bodied enough to work to help support the family financially. I was very deeply touched by this experience. I spent almost 4 years working with them at close quarters, later I would work with children in Thailand that were born HIV+, another complex social issue that is still deeply shunned. During this time I joined two documentary photo agencies: Network Photographers, in London and Anarchy Images in New York but both collapsed as the digital and internet revolution and the steady decline of print magazines specializing in social content. “Positive Lifestyle” stories were much preferred to sit alongside expensive advertisements for a better life. In the end with the collapse of this market for me and no representation I decided to move back to making my own work and concentrating on print sales and exhibitions, as well as teaching photography and creative thinking in some SE Asian Universities. The work I make now is still heavily underpinned with social commentary and ethos, yet it still encompasses much of the same visual ingredients of the image of the Tuscan bed shot back in 1989. Recent work has included a color series entitled “Coelacanth” which is Part 1 of a much larger body of work that will explore the largely publicly unseen complexities of family life in NE Thailand. The working title for the whole series is “In The Belly of The Whale” as NE Thailand (or Isaan as it is more commonly known) really represents for me, the underbelly of Thailand itself. This is a long term project that will flow and ebb at its natural pace, as I find my way deeper into what is a fascinating culture steeped in mystery and ancient traditions. My approach is much the same as it was with the Khmer families supported by the Cambodia Trust—an approach that is deeply respectful and non judgmental.

 

What books did you read growing up?

SIMON: All the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, a lot of science fiction mainly trilogies that I can’t now remember but the one book that really stood out for me and I read again recently Raft of Despair by Ensio Tiira—a true story. It still strikes a deep resonant chord within me.

 

What are some of your favorite books and films?

SIMON: Authors: Paul Auster, Mo Hyder (Tokyo my favorite), Jeff Long, Iain Sinclair (Radon Daughters my favorite) everything by Haruki Murakami, Jose Saramago, China Mieville (everything I have read so far) to name but a few.

Film Directors: Andrei Tarkosky, Wim Wenders, Lars Von Trier, Andrey Zvyagintev, and Peter Greenaway are favorites that quickly come to mind. Chris Marker, David Lynch especially the early works, all of the films by Tsai Ming-liang, the Brothers Quay and recently I discovered through a good friend of mine Tom Gordon the works of Bruno Forzani and Helene Cattet which has some outstanding cinema photography.

 

What current bands/music do you listen to today?

SIMON: Excluding all the 4AD bands which is a separate question, my first LP was Patti Smith’s Easter I think I was 14 at the time, followed a week or so later by Rush’s All the Worlds a Stage, then came Neil Young, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Later came Neil Young, Rory Gallagher, The Sex Pistols, The Stranglers and The Adverts, followed by Brian Eno Ted Nugent, Tangerine Dream, Talking Heads and UFO. After that I was into Iron Maiden and Saxon (new British metal bands) and of course U2 (I remember playing a bootleg cassette of theirs a friend gave me over and over again). Then came David Sylvian and R.E.M and later in the mid ’90s I was introduced to Talvin Singh and Paul Oakenfold which I used to play repeatedly in my darkroom when I was printing recently which introduced me to the world of trance/house uplift music especially Tijs Michiel Verwest (knowns as Tiësto). Recently I have been rediscovering The Church who I liked years back and also Three Doors Down.  I am sure there are many others but I don’t have my iTunes currently with me as I’m traveling.

 

Who were your favorite 4AD bands?

SIMON: I really liked Wolfgang Press, Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil, Ultra Vivid Scene and the Cocteau Twins. I was into many other bands at the time, mainly rock and ambient music. My all time favourite from the 4Ad label is Michael Brook.

 

Do you embrace new technology, or do you take a wait and see approach?

SIMON: The problem with new technology is it’s always changing and often more expensive (just look at Leica’s current prices!) so nothing stays new anymore! I think it very much depends what I am working on. What’s important to me is that each lens has a unique signature and renders or draws images in quite different ways depending on the f-stop and its aperture blades. I use them like brushes really and to be honest I now see my work much closer to painting then photography. (This is an important change for me because I moved into photography from painting when I was a student because I couldn’t get the results I wanted using brushes and paint mediums).

 

Karen Hill Tribe 2

“Karen Hill Tribe Girls”, Thai Burmese Border, 2003 © Simon larbalestier.

 

Has your creative process changed over the years?

SIMON: I think it has yes, in the way I shoot. I still am fascinated (obsessed even) by textures and the sense of impermanence (for me best visualized by decay), religion is still a heavy undercurrent especially with all my years in South East Asia. I had two distinct ways of approaching my work when I left the RCA in 1987 (three if you count all my collage work but I abandoned this way of working in 1992). There was the very clinical, almost surgical still life sets (all the Pixies’ early works for example), book covers and numerous annual reports etc.—these type of images were painstakingly arranged under a camera lens usually a 5/4” camera but I also shot 10/8” and meticulously lit with tungsten lights, reflectors and mirrors. AND there was the location work that I was shooting in Europe, the best example being the image of the bed we discussed earlier.

This second way of seeing for me has become the primary way I see now.

I found in SE Asia, such a rich tapestry of visual juxtapositions that there was never any need to recreate them in a studio setting. Everything I did then and now is captured using available light (natural light)—no flash or additional lighting. I still see things in terms of planes of focus and everything is shot within an internal grid system (visualized in my head) so my shooting principles have really not changed just the visual aesthetic—for example I often favor the very limited depth of field of the fast 35/1.4 and 50/1.4 lenses that render a soft dreamy background, but other times I still shoot at f5.6/8 to retain full detail across the plane of vision. It really depends on the nature and character of the subject matter I am shooting and how I see the project developing. These days I tend to work in large sets of images – a series may total 100+ images. In a sense, as well as a growing and firm affinity with painting (Francis Bacon, Anselm Kiefer, Edward Hopper and Fred Williams are special favorites) there’s also an attraction the sequential image and cinema: Chris Marker’s work often plays in my mind in terms of using still images to convey narrative. Narrative or the sense of it, is very important in my more recent work and I now find it hard just to make a single image without shooting several that might relate to it. I have always enjoyed the narrative sequences of Duane Michal’s especially when he writes on the surface of his prints. I also enjoy mixing the dates of images so that underlying themes begun years ago, can be re-introduced into newer bodies of work, giving the whole series a greater sense of history and identity. The body of work entitled “Cyphers” employs this approach. I like recycling themes and motifs, it allows for a degree of playfulness in my work and sometimes the dark humour lifts the mood slightly.

 

Touch Somploy 1 Edit

Touch Somply, supported by The Cambodia Trust, Kampot Province Cambodia, 2006 © Simon Larbalestier

 

What is your all-time favorite camera?

SIMON: Leica M—there’s no substitute.

 

Thank you for your time and participation. We enjoyed talking with you.

 

TO SEE MORE GREAT WORK, VISIT –  SIMON LARBALESTIER

 

Blog:  http://blog.simon-larbalestier.co.uk/simon/
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Keicha Kempsey writer

Dos Trensas/Two Braids”

by Keicha Kempsey

 

Drop Cap There is nothing to disguise the lies as efficiently as more lies. Her hair was dark, almost black, and thick, coarse. It took hours to comb though the waist length mane. By the time the chocolate-colored, old, weathered hands finished braiding it, bedtime was upon them. Two ponytails this time, tightly held at either side of her head by strips of colorful rags made to look like hair ribbons, fashioned from old worn clothing that even when new to her had been second-hand. Or more than likely, third or fourth-hand. Usefulness did not have an expiration date. The young girl could feel the tugging of the hair ribbons pinching. Her head was throbbing but she dared not complain. That old hard-leather chancleta[1] would be off her grandmother’s callused foot and connecting with her flat backside with a swiftness that defied the old lady’s age.

“Alright, get up,” she was told, brusquely, in Spanish, of course. The hands that had held her close just seconds ago shoving her away. Quietly, she collected the brush and comb as well as the pomade that had travelled all the way from the home country, Dominican Republic. She gathered the hair that had been pulled out of her head in the process as well. The broken brown kinky curls a knotted ball in her skinny hand. She put everything back in its place and tossed her ripped out hair in the bathroom garbage.

She looked in the bathroom mirror, an old medicine cabinet that hung in front of the bathroom window, nailed to the frame, ensuring the window would never be opened. A blank gaze stared back at her. She was tall, gangly, homely looking. And now, thanks to the two extremely tight braided ponytails at either side of her oval head, her prominent forehead was resplendent. She wanted to undo them, wanted to rip the ridiculous ribbons from her head and flush them down the toilet. But she would not. She dared not. She did as she was told. Always had. So what if she was eleven years old and her grandmother still combed her hair. She was okay with it. It didn’t matter what anyone else thought or said.

A silent tear trekked down her caramel cheek and disappeared into her thin lips. She swiped angrily at her face, puffed out her chest and went to bed in the room she shared with her thirty year old virgin aunt. There were three beds in the room. One single bed, a captain’s bed in unfinished wood which belonged to her aunt. Then there were bunk beds. She slept in the top bed and the bottom was a catchall. Or, if someone came to visit, as long as they were female, it was a guest bed.   She climbed up to her bed, said a silent prayer and slept.

*          *          *

“Why don’t you try turning your head a little to the left and tilting your head up?” The man behind the camera tried to find her “good side.” He had been at it for five minutes already, and she was becoming increasingly stiff, not comfortable, with his every suggestions. Everyone else in her class was waiting. They had already taken their class picture and their individual pictures. She glanced over at her teacher, her eyes searching, asking for help, for the pain to stop. Mrs. Diaz smiled at her, recognizing the pained look. It was the same one she gave in class when called upon to answer a question or read aloud. Mrs. Diaz walked over to the photographer and whispered in his ear. He frowned instantly, but nodded.

He turned to me once again and offered me a furtive smile. “One more?” I glanced at Mrs. Diaz. She nodded. I forced a smile on my lips, tilted my head slightly to the left and stuck my chin out defiantly, my two braided ponytails, with their colorful mismatched ties, hanging at either side of my head like heavy burdens.

 

[1] House slipper

 

BIO

Keicha KempseyKeicha Delacruz-Kempsey lives in New York with her husband and two young children. She teaches high school English and Spanish in a public school. She received her undergraduate degree from The City College of New York, a master’s degree in teaching from Empire State College and a second master’s degree in English Literature from SUNY New Paltz.

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Kantu damage

In Quest of Indelible Images:
Re-Discovering the Great Kantu Earthquake of 1923
Through Photo-Archeology

By Paul Garson

 

tokyo earthquake rescue

 

This article is an excerpt form a larger work now in progress, a book titled, Adventures of a Photo-Archeoolgist: Earthquakes, Spies, Forgotten Wars and Lost Worlds.

 

Drop Cap The 5,000 years of human civilization can be viewed as a continuum of indelible images. Enter the proliferation of the camera into the equation, and the images recording more recent history have gained the status of time machines, each photograph capturing an instance of reflected light that came only once into being and then vanished. However, in untold instances those very images themselves have disappeared, yet to be unearthed and then re-examined in an effort to bring into focus pivotal events.

While the evolution of the camera and photography can be traced back to ancient China, untold billions of photos have been taken since the “modern” portable camera appeared in 1888 with the first Kodak. Since then and in addition to the professional photographer serving science and technology, the amateur’s “snapshots” have also provided a wealth of documentation that has chronicled history in the making.

Though not cast in stone or metal, these relatively fragile slips of coated paper, are still in essence, “artifacts” that have survived war and natural disaster over ever increasing periods of time. The role of the photo-archeologist is to search for those that can cast the past in a new and revealing light. It requires diligence, patience and an abiding curiosity to literally spend thousands of hours “digging up” the images from around the globe via the Internet as well as from scouring swap meets, auctions, collector photo events and garage sales ad infinitum. Further effort via computer software is often required to maximize the quality of the images, as well as months of research that takes the photo-archeologist through many a twist and turn investigating rare books, vintage magazines, film documentaries and of course, surfing the Web, in order to thread the images together in a tapestry of some coherence, all in the hopes the final outcome would provide the reader/viewer with the ah!-factor experienced during the adventure of discovery.

In each instance the “dig” begins with a chance meeting with a single photograph be it from an old scrapbook or found as a postcard. Then the hunt is on …. and it may be days, weeks, months, even years before the next thread is found. Following is an excerpt from one such “photo-archeological dig,” all images form the author’s collection.

Like a shard of pottery or glint of a buried relic, it all begins with one fragment, the first piece of the puzzle.

 

* * * * *

The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923: Portent of Disaster Unheeded, Seeds of a Future War Sown

 

 postcard Japan 22

 

Two Weeks Out at Sea- Ominous First Warning – September 23, 1923                          

A postcard transmitted via U.S. Seapost Transmission from an unidentified cruise ship bound for Japan, Mrs. Gillet has written to a Miss Gertruck Pollack in Los Angeles. Her message reads, “Tomorrow at daylight we will be in Japan. Our wireless is busy telling of terrible earthquake and fire. I’m enjoying every minute, never miss a meal. Best wishes to Fritz and all.”

 

The Next Thread – Original Photo 1923– Passengers aboard the Empress of Australia

 

Empress passengers

 

aboard cruise ship

 

The luxury cruise ship was equipped to accommodate 400 First, 165 Second and 1200 Third Class passengers. All First Class passengers were provided with cabins fitted withbedsteads without the “annoyance” of upper berths. The public rooms were lavishly detailed in Louis XVI motif while the indoor pool was decorated in Pompeian style. These passengers onboard that Saturday, Sept. 1, 1923 would find themselves caught on the very edge of a maelstrom of fire and destruction, the ship entangled and unable to leave its mooring.

 

Empress ship card

 

The Empress of Australia – Hero Ship

An illustration appearing on a 1924 issue trading card found in Wills’s Cigarettes shows the Canadian Pacific Liner Empress of Australia, a survivor of the Yokohama earthquake.

She became the most famous of the ships that served as a sanctuary during the earthquake and fires. At 21,850 tons, the 615 ft. long, 75 ft. wide, the streamlined silver and black steamer was able to save over 2,000 lives thanks to the courage and leadership of its captain, Samuel Robinson. His heroic efforts would see him honored as a Knight Commander of the British Empire as well as the recipient of decorations by Emperor Hirohito of Japan and the King of Siam.

 

* * * * *

Point of Intersection – Where the Images Lead

Since 1871, in a country known for its traditions, at exactly the noon hour, the loud report or don of a cannon being fired from the plaza of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace notified the city’s inhabitants that the day was proceeding normally. On the muggy Saturday morning of September 1, 1923, the muffled “bang” to which the citizenry of the island nation’s capital was long accustomed never sounded. At one minute and 15.4 seconds before the noon hour struck, the Earth beneath Japan literally rose in revolt.

 

damage Asakusa

 

Apocalypse Now

Rather than the remains of Hiroshima or Nagasaki after their destruction by nuclear bombs in August 1945 during the last days of WWII, the vast devestation seen here was visited some 22 years previously upon the thriving Japanese seaport city of Yokohama. The 8.3 level earthquake struck on September 1, 1923 from an epicenter located hundreds of feet beneath Izu Oshima Island in Sagami Bay some 25 miles from Tokyo, seismic waves sent the Honshu island’s Plain of Kanto heaving for at least four minutes and for as many as ten, instantly toppling hundreds of thousands of factories, homes and government buildings and in the process setting aflame the city of mostly wood and rice paper. Seen here is a portion of a panoramic photograph of Yokokama taken some days afterwards as evidenced by the resurrection of the utility poles.

The combination of flame and flood, mud slides and avalanches impacting Yokohama and Tokyo and surrounding areas killed between 105,000-140,000 people and injured tens of thousands more as well as left nearly 2,000,0000 homeless. By comparison the WWII atomic explosions killed an estimated total of 105, 000. The Great Kanto Earthquake as it was called had been accurately predicted, but the warning was ignored to disastrous result. Greater disaster would follow as the destruction of the two cities would indirectly and directly help fan the flames of a global war.

 

1923 color postcard harbor

Aftermath

Amidst the destruction, a cameraman has photographed the remains of the Ryounkaku, one Tokyo’s best known landmarks situated in the Asakusa entertainment district. The 220-foot tall “skyscraper” containing many stores and shops was also known as the “12-Storey” and “Cloud Scraper,” the octagonal brick building designed by British water engineer W.K. Burton under contract to Tokyo authorities. Completed in 1890 it was for many years the tallest building in Japan. From its rooftop one could view all of Tokyo. And from almost anywhere in city you could see it as well. During the earthquake it broke at the eighth floor, the top four floors crumbling, its skeletal shell left standing for months until Japanese army engineers dynamited its remains while clearing the post-quake rubble.

 

Tokyo Lunarscape

In the foreground and distant background the white-cladrescuers comb the debris field, the fires, some 130, having subsided after 40 continuous hours. Some two-thirds of the city felt the effect of the earthquake while fire consumed all of it. Once the embers had cooled, thousands of bodies had to be extricated from the pancaked buildings. Amidst the ruins a lone traffic tower still remains standing, although the streets, partially cleared show, no resumption yet of vehicular traffic.

Some 40 miles to the east of Tokyo, the coastal resort city of Kamakura was also struck by the earthquake, the 13th Century bronze Great Buddha, weighing some 93 tons, slid forward on its base two feet while the surrounding buildings were destroyed, the area’s beach hit by a 20-ft. tsunami that, along with the earthquake and resulting fires, claimed over 2,000 lives. Here the seismic event raised the sea floor and beach some six feet.

 

naval officer and wife

 

Formal Portrait

While the West calculated the year as 1921, the Empire of Japan officially counted it as 2583, time out of joint as it were. The collision of long isolated feudal Japan with the modern world led to more than conflicting clothing styles as evidenced by an officer’s Western influenced Imperial Navy uniform and his bride’s traditional kimono, the latter’s creation requiring the total production of 5,000 silkworms.

 

General McCoy

 

America Sends Disaster Relief with Semi-Disastrous Result
Seen in an original 1923 photograph, Brig. Gen. Frank R. McCoy, who had by chance recently arrived in Japan on leave prior to the earthquake, was then designated to the post of Director General of American Relief. He had his job cut out for him. As a result of the Kanto Earthquake and collateral damage the area suffered estimated damages equivalent to $1 billion.

America mounted an unprecedented relief effort, an exercise of global good will made possible by the combined efforts of the U.S. Navy, Army and Marines bolstered by monetary and material contributions by the American public and business community on a scale never seen before. While their attentions were focused on U.S. citizens (167 killed, many injured among some 500 foreign casualties), the effort aided the Japanese as well through food and supplies and the rebuilding of infrastructure. Through the efforts of the American Red Cross and then U.S. President Calvin Coolidge some $12,000,000 was raised, the monies turned over to the Japanese Red Cross for distribution. One shipment from the west coast of the U.S., among tons of foodstuffs, included nearly 5,000 kimonos.

 

seismologist Immamura

Seismic Seer Unheeded

(Photo courtesy of Kazumi Terada, Immaura’s great-grandaughter)

In 1905 Akitsune Imamura, then 35, a member the Seismology Department at Tokyo Imperial University, and a leading if controversial researcher seeking a means by which to forecast earthquakes, warned against the fragility of the alluvial landfill as well as the susceptibility of the vast number of wooden structures to massive fire damage in the event of an earthquake. Imamura made detailed recommendations to prepare and ameliorate such an eventualityand even virtually pinpointed the location of the next great quake, moreover predicting its time frame. He also was one the first to associate earthquakes as the cause of tsunamis and would build the first “earthquake proof” house. While Japan was well-versed in its seismic vulnerability, his university superior belittled his doomsday forecast and when a local newspaper splashed his warnings in lurid terms, he became a subject of ridicule. His vindication on September 1, 1923 would be a bitter one, two cities destroyed to prove him right. He would survive both the earthquake and WWII and gain wide recognition for his contributions to seismology.

As for the predictions of future disasters, Akitsune Imamura, the vindicated and then much heralded seismologist who had forecast the Great Kanto Earthquake, years later predicted a second major earthquake, one that would be generated near Osaka. He again called for earthquake preparedness, but was ignored for a second time. 1300 peopled died on December 7, 1944 when the quake struck at the point Imamura had predicted, the date coincidental to the day of the Pearl Harbor attack and seen by some Western observers as divine retribution, by others as the human ability to repeatedly ignore the warnings of history.

 

newspaper headline Sept 1923

 

The Front Page of the Louisville, Kentucky The Courier-Journal – Wednesday Morning edition September 5, 1923

The feature article erroneously reported the eruptions of volcanoes 50 miles northwest of Tokyo but accurately as “the greatest earthquake in the history of this country” as well as the 20 foot swells that reached the California coast. Details included concerns over 29 missing Kentuckians then in Japan. At this time Tokyo was still being spelled Tokio in U.S. publications.

 

 

 

BIO

paul garsonPaul Garson is a writer and photographer. He has contributed to many magazines and periodicals, and has published both fiction and nonfiction books as well as written two screenplays that have been produced. He served as a university instructor of composition and writing, as well as a martial arts instructor. His public relations and marketing projects included several for national and multinational companies.

His previous books include Album of the Dead, concerning WWII in Europe, available through Chicago Review Press, and New Images from Nazi Germany available through McFarland & Publishers.

 

 

 

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Seijun Suzuki Nikkatsu

Still the Master – Seijun Suzuki Legendary Filmmaker

by Chris Casey

 

tokyo drifter

Tokyo Drifter, 1966

 

On May 24, 2014, Suzuki Seijun, one of my most favorite filmmakers turned 91. Under typical circumstances, I would have created a status post about Suzuki’s birthday for my Facebook page. However, since the passing of my father, I have found myself to be physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually busy with first one thing then twenty others. Therefore, I have to confess, I simply forgot about Suzuki-sensei’s 91st birthday.

Interestingly enough, though, yesterday was the first time in many, many moons I was actually able to sit down to watch some movies and guess what films I chose to watch? Two classics from none other than birthday boy, Suzuki Seijun, himself! Perhaps, subconsciously I remembered it was his birthday—but, then again, perhaps not. All I know is that there are a fistful of films I call my “comfort movies” (these are films that I can, and do, put on and enjoy anytime, anywhere—but, most especially when I am feeling out of sorts). And among my comfort movies are the Suzuki masterpieces I watched, yesterday: TOKYO NAGAREMONO (TOKYO DRIFTER) and KOROSHI NO RAKUIN (BRANDED TO KILL).

They just don’t make ’em like Suzuki Seijun anymore.

SUZUKI SEIJUN

Undeniably, the most well-known practitioner of Nikkatsu Action eiga (at least in the West) is maverick director Suzuki Seijun. His work for Nikkatsu Studios ranks as some of the most intriguing and visually stunning cinema ever produced, in any country or within any genre. Over the past ten years, an endless number of film journalists, critics, and fans, have written miles of well-deserved rabid reviews, and elegant essays regarding this colorful director’s life and his brilliant work. In most of these articles, Suzuki is likened to “outlaw” directors such as Samuel Fuller, Robert Aldrich, and Jean-Luc Godard. Although, he no doubt shares much with these celebrated auetuers, he is also very much unlike them. With a few exceptions, these other directors worked outside of restricting studio systems. Seijun, on the other hand, boldly made his own artistic statements within the confines of such systems, making him a completely unique, and paradoxical, rebel of conformity.

 

branded to kill 1967

Branded to Kill, 1967

Typically, Suzuki Seijun films are hyperbolic, intense, overtly melodramatic, flamboyant, and frequently just barely within the lines of controlled chaos. However, at the same time, they are subtle, sensual, and highly artistic in execution (though Suzuki, himself, would firmly deny it!). The medium to which Suzuki’s work is most closely related would be the traditional Kabuki style of theatre. Suzuki-sensei’s surrealistic use of color to denote various emotional aspects of the scene, his utilization of sound, his stage-like framing, and the acting style of the performers, often reflect Kabuki–as tempered through an anarchic, cinematic eye.

Suzuki’s works have been frequently referred to as radical (in both the good and bad sense of the word!); and radical they most definitely are. Yet the wild, rebellious nature inherent in his films could be interpreted as a logical extension, or reflection, of the world in which Suzuki grew up.

Born Suzuki Seitaro in May of 1923, Suzuki (and thus his film work) is a product of the tumultuous Taisho period. This period of Japanese history (including the years between 1912 and 1926) was a volatile time of cultural upheavals and political revolutions. These were chaotic–yet, picturesque—days of newly imported, translated, and assimilated, philosophies, literature, and entertainment forms (including silent films) mixing with traditional Japanese ways and viewpoints. This cultural wildness seems to have left an indelible mark on Suzuki’s psyche.

After completing a course at Tokyo Trade School, in 1941, Suzuki attempted to enter the College of the Ministry of Agriculture; but, he failed the entrance exam because he was weak in physics and chemistry. For a brief time he did basically nothing (with the exception of watching numerous films), until he somehow managed to end up in a college at Hirosaki. However, his days as a student were soon cut short.

Suzuki was drafted into service during World War II in 1943. While serving as a Private, second class, he was shipwrecked twice. Sometime after these experiences he was promoted to the rank of Second Lieutenant with the Meterological Corps in the South Pacific.

In 1946, after the War, Suzuki returned to Japan and his studies at Hirosaki. He finished his courses there and attempted to enter the prestigious Tokyo University; but, he failed to win a place there. Trying a new direction altogether, the young film buff, Suzuki, decided to heed the advice of a friend, and enrolled in the Film Department of Kamakura Academy.

In 1948 Suzuki was accepted as a salaried employee at the Shochiku Film Company’s Ofuna Studio. While with Shochiku, he worked mainly as an assistant director. He worked a great deal and learned a lot; however, he was not making very good money. After six years, he decided to transfer to Nikkatsu purely for–he claims–financial reasons.

 

youth of the beast

Youth of the Beast, 1963

At Nikkatsu, Suzuki again worked chiefly as an assistant, though better paid, to many of the studio’s best directors. After proving himself to be a very efficient second unit man, and a very capable scriptwriter, he was finally given the chance to direct features of his own. Still using his real name, Suzuki Seitaro, he began his illustrious career as a full-fledged director in 1956 with a minor-league pop music film. Suzuki quickly became a skilled master of studio-dictated, production line features; however, with each new film assignment he seemed to try a little harder to entertain the audience in a new way and make tired ideas seem fresh.

With the 1958 crime film, “Ankokugai no Bijo” (“Beauty of the Underworld”), Suzuki Seitaro became (and would remain) Suzuki Seijun. Yet, the “Seijun Style” would not truly come to exist until 1963 and the release of three perfect examples of Sensei’s art, “Tantei Jimusho 2-3: Kutabare Akutodomo” (“Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell, Bastards!”), “Yaju no Seishun” (“Youth of the Beast”), and “Kanto Mushuku” (“Kanto Wanderer”).

From 1963-1967, Suzuki Seijun created some of the most amazing pieces of cinema ever screened. Always trying to top himself in an effort to “keep the audience from getting bored,” each successive project seemed to push a little closer in exceeding the limitations of genre, budget, and expectations.

 

Gate of Flesh

Gate of Flesh, 1964

In 1967, Nikkatsu was having some major money problems. Kyusaku Hori, the company president at the time, decided (for who knows what reasons) to make Suzuki the scapegoat for the entire company’s financial woes and fired him for making “incomprehensible” movies that made no money. Kyusaku particularly hated “Koroshi no Rakuin” (“Branded to Kill”), a film that is now regarded as Suzuki’s masterpiece worldwide.

Ignoring all protests from fellow Nikkatsu workers, friends, and student groups, Hori stuck to his decision to dismiss Seijun. Feeling rightfully cheated, Suzuki took an unprecedented step and sued Nikkatsu for wrongful dismissal, a case which the director won three and a half years later. Though he won in the courts, Suzuki was effectively blacklisted by all of the major studios for nearly ten years.

Filling these lean years by directing a few commercials and publishing books of essays, Suzuki constantly sought ways to continue his filmmaking career. In 1980 he joined with independent producer Genjiro Arato and released a new film, “Zigeunerweisen“. The film was a great success with critics, and did well financially despite the fact that it was not allowed to be distributed through normal circuits. In fact, Suzuki and Genjiro distributed the film themselves, exhibiting it via a specially built mobile theatre!

Since that time, Suzuki has directed two more independent works, “Kagero-za” (“mirage Theatre”) and “Yumeji“, as well as one film, “Capone oi ni Naku” (“Capone’s Flood of Tears”), for his former employers, Shochiku. His Nikkatsu films began getting noticed in the West sometime in the mid to late 1980’s with festivals, from Italy to Canada, successfully screening many of his classics. In the ’90s, with the advent of more niche-oriented home video (DVD) and the World Wide Web, Suzuki’s cult of admirers has continued to expand (and deservedly so).

 

bastardshellposter

Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell, Bastards!, 1963

 

Recommended Suzuki Films:

BRANDED TO KILL (Koroshi no Rakuin, 1967)
YOUTH OF THE BEAST (Yaju no Seishun, 1963)
TOKYO DRIFTER (Tokyo Nagaremono, 1966)
KANTO WANDERER (Kanto Mushuku, 1963)
STORY OF A PROSTITUTE (Shunpuden, 1965)
GATE OF FLESH (Nikutai no Mon, 1964)
UNDERWORLD BEAUTY (Ankokugai no Bijo, 1958)
TATTOOED LIFE (Irezumi Ichidai, 1965)
DETECTIVE BUREAU 2-3: GO TO HELL, BASTARDS! (Tantei Jimusho 2-3: Kutabare Akuto-domo, 1963)
THE FLOWER AND THE ANGRY WAVES (Hana to Doto, 1964)

 All titles, with the exception of THE FLOWER AND ANGRY WAVES, have had U.S. DVD releases.

 

BIO

Chris CaseyChris Casey is a musician, writer, film buff, occasional actor, and nagaremono currently residing in Stillwater, Oklahoma, USA. Chris digs: Japanese action cinema of the 1950’s and 1960’s, Spy flicks and TV shows of the 1960’s, Westerns (Spaghetti and American); Film Noir; Hard-Boiled Pulp Fiction; Mods, R&B; Soul, Beat Music, Jazz, Ska, Reggae, Punk, Instrumental Surf Rock, Dashiell Hammett, Carroll John Daly, Raymond Chandler, Mishima Yukio, and much more.

 

 

 

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Ruth Berger author

Rumplestiltskin-Rumplestiltskin-Rumplestiltskin.

by Ruth Gila Berger

 

Drop Cap To change: to make the form, nature, content, future course, etc., of something different from what it is or from what it would be if left alone. To transform or convert. Change implies making either an essential difference often amounting to a loss of original identity or a substitution of one thing for another.

  *  *  *

A spiderweb riddled with raindrops is shaken by a passing cat and shaken again. Can that path of water be traced? Water slides along the threads and is flung back to its original position. Did it change? Did the cat impart some fundamental influence on how the light then hits and reveals a perfect geometry? Did the cat change its future? Such a web is one of the most dazzling things to see, always, always unexpected and alarming.

   *  *  *

If you go to treatment for chemical dependency, which I did, they will tell you that changes made for another person are inherently fragile, not lasting. Soon fraught with resentment they boomerang. On a basic level this is a view with which I agree. Yet. To answer the question, how has knowing Christi changed me? Because her experience casts light on mine, and through that prism, so much blue churns. The cadmium answers. And what I see is that I want to change how I relate, not just to Christi, but to other people in my life. Knowing exactly where or how that interpersonal weave has shifted, knowing exactly when I turned around to catch and repair any given stitch is hard to trace. Right now the change in me is about many conversations I would have never previously even imagined having.

   *  *  *

I was, I am, the girl who loves dandelions. Their silver streaks across my history and I need to gather at least one strand from every plant in the yard. Momma had a baby and her head popped off. Each flower flies off, a different vision. I wish I could cut the memories as easily a that stalk-severing snap. But they always come back. The most obvious reevaluation of my relationship with my mother was prompted by the fact that Christi’s died when she was fifteen. That loss shines light on value, that no matter what my relationship with my mother was, it is a living, breathing thing that could grow and change.

   *  *  *

Do you know where you’re goin to? Do you like the things that life is showing you? Where are you goin to? Do you know? Do you get what you’re hopin for when you look behind you, there’s no open doors what are you hopin for? Do you know?

   *  *  *

The first time Christi met my parents was in July; we’d been dating since February. It was during this visit I realized I was no longer a fly caught in amber, unable to move or change and it was during this visit I would realize just how much I had changed.

For my parents’ visit, I engineered around obstacles. There would be no awkward moment at the airport; I had my parents book a rental car; they’d need it regardless. And because I wanted this to be a new start, I tried to give Christi a different set of stories, to show her something other than the trashy set of teacups I have always hauled out to put on display, chipped, cracked and gritty. I worked hard to tell her about happy times. Almost all my stories took place within the grease stained walls of my parents’ kitchen. We were a food-obsessed family, with my dad’s Crohn’s so many things had to be avoided. I grew up reading ingredient lists. Bread should be flour, water, salt and yeast.

I told Christi about how I started to cook before I started school. My parents got me a kid’s cookbook, Look I can Cook! It had goofy illustrations. My favorite thing was Crocque Monsieurs, grilled ham and cheese. From there I went on to make my own recipes.

What they had to eat,” I said. “I loved candles and made them eat by candlelight. Pissed my dad off in such a big way. He liked to see. I don’t know. They were really kind of extraordinary. Like I used to sing them these operas I made up—that they listened more than once is astounding. Jesus. My mom drove me to ballet like every other day. She hated driving but I don’t remember her ever yelling at me about it. You know, that she was doing something I should be grateful for? The lists of things, I take you everywhere, I get you everything, all that. I mean there was all this generosity. And I didn’t do anything to deserve it, not really.”

“My parents took me to swimming twice a day,” Christi interrupted me.

“Yeah, your dad said you could quit at any time.”

Christi nodded.

“Wow. You remember I told you that? All I know is if I were my dad, I would’ve been angry,” she said.

“My parents were really pretty great,” I said. “They even went to see a speed metal band. It was right after high school. My boyfriend played the bass. You should’ve seen them dancing. I mean I wasn’t embarrassed, not exactly. But oye, remember the Cosby Show, second season, the opening sequence? My dad was kinda like that. Only he wasn’t Bill Cosby. It was a moment for them and me. I want you to love them. You know? Not to enter it all accusations. I mean. Nevermind. At this point there really aren’t those accusations to make.”

The week before my parents were set to visit Christi called me at work. An accident. She’d gotten McDonald’s and was chasing a fry, those last ones in the bag under the napkins after she’d finished the red thing of them and didn’t see the Suburban in front of her stop before it was too late. Her CRV was smashed.

“He didn’t even have a dent,” she told me. “Jackass came out all whiny and screaming at me. It was stop and go traffic. At the fastest I was going was under twenty. Bubbles whole front needs rebuilding. Vina will do it, he won’t even charge me for rent since I can’t pay all of it but how am I going to get the money, two thousand dollars?”

Later that night Christi buried her head under the covers.

“What am I going to do without a car. There’s no bus to the studio. To where I work. I can’t take the bus anyway. I have a mental illness. Everyone on there is crazy during the day. Crazy people make me more crazy. All the shouting,” Christi wailed. “Shit I need the car for Matt. What am I going to do?”

I stared at Christi. I’d recently met Matt. He was sweet. A friend of hers who’d found himself with a cancerous tumor in his brain. He’d tried for bright and bubbly that day but he was sick, broke and uninsured, a bulb on the fritz. He’d answered the door and his white Pomeranian mini did a NASCAR on the rung when we entered the foyer. Matt quickly led us to the living room where he could sit down again. They went over what he needed from the store and when his appointments were that week. Before we left he handed Christi two large bags of pills. Vicodin, Percocet, Oxycontin. He had a refillable prescription for all three but felt more sick when he took them. Christi, being darkly connected, sold them with interest and gave him the money. With this arrangement he paid rent and didn’t bounce the check he wrote for cable and electricity.

The last time pills were easy for me was when I was in India with its newspaper kiosk pharmacies. Open air, a counter on the street. Just memorize the generics a friend had advised me. That stash was years gone.

Happily I helped Christi take her tithe of freebies. Like fine sandpaperI’ve long loved pills—they smooth all edges, chemical hands that shape the world, make it clay, squished down in size. They cut the worst off the menstrual cramps that doubled me often enough when standing on line at the post office. They allowed me to stand straight those days.

“Honey,” I said. “It’ll be okay. Really. We’ll share my car. You’ll have me to drive to work everyday, pick me up. That’ll be pain but you can deal with it. I have a coffee maker. You can save at least $56 a week that way. We’ll figure it out. Don’t worry.”

“What if my coffee sucks. You’ll hate me,” Christi said.

“Just make it stronger,” I said.

“Your parents’ll hate me. Crazy moocher lesbian on disability, Jesus. Your parents will hate me and I’ll lose my mistress,” she said.

“More like you’ll be disgusted at how I am with my parents and want nothing further to do with me. Like one of the early times Craig was with me we were saying goodbye to my mom at the airport. She hugged me and kissed my neck. I actually threw her off of me. I have no idea what I said but she just stood there whispering just a hug, just a hug. Am I any better now? I can’t say.”

This time it was Christi who reached to comfort me.

   *  *  *

Stories have a way of changing, their bones grow or shrink from loss of calcium. What was once solid now shows up in x-rays as a disturbing lace. The story of what we’d forever refer to as my moment on the stairs doesn’t. There might be a few previously forgotten details but the colors stay the same.

I had asked my parents to visit for four days but they scheduled to fly in for six. The explosion came exactly as I was loath to predict, on the fifth day of their visit. Up to this point things between us have gone swimmingly. Christi’s studio, restaurants, conversation. There were no presumptuous digs about my last relationship—my ex in comparison with Christi. Perhaps I had a few small sores in my mouth from where I’d worried the sides of my cheeks. Perhaps I had started to dig my nails into the palms of my hands. But my patience was a frozen lake, smooth, no cracks. My mother regaled Christi with her knowledge of artists and art history, her theories about this or that painting, eyes sparking, thrilled to finally have an audience who sat close to me. And although Christi would later confess to feelings of inadequacy next to the collective intellect of my family, her dimples populated a galaxy as she told my parents stories. Together the four of us went to Christi’s apartment to meet her roommate Howard and their animals. My parents’ skin glowed in the bright inclusion. Christi beamed. Grudgingly, chafing, I conceded the invisible concrete I moved in was awkward and unnecessary. Although each night we agreed Christi should go home, we kissed, caved, and she stayed. Sunday I planned our dinner for Monday. I’d have to get up early to marinate the steak and prepare the tomatoes for slow-roasting before I went to work.

In the car that morning I instructed Christi to make sure my dad started the grill before she left to get me so I could run upstairs, change, and do the rest of the cooking. Risotto with shrimp, shallots, basil, red pepper flakes and the tomatoes. An Argentinean parmesan cheese.

“Yummy,” Christi smiled at me.

A chill waltzed the sweat on my body and I turned to her, goose-pimply.

“The last time I cooked for them was a disaster. A total fucking disaster,” I said. “I forget what I was making but it had zucchini and the zucchini ruined everything. It was so bitter I spit it out. Like actually spit it at the table. Was so disgusting. But my mother had to do her whole fucking martyr thing and keep eating.”

“Sweetie,” Christi plied me. “You’re twitching.”

“Not!” I said.

My blood had turned to bees. The reflection of my face shimmered in the dirty window.

What is wrong with me?

At five o’clock prompt Christ was there to pick me up.

“How was work?” she asked.

I shrugged. When we got home the sky put on a crayon-box evening. The weather wasn’t too hot, it was lovely. My parents were waiting. Their scattered things for a second added extra teeth to wrap my mouth around, my mother’s balled up socks on the rug, two extra shirts on the couch, made it hard to breathe. Pages of the New York Times were everywhere. My mother blocked the stairs so I had to hug her or tell her to get out of the way.

“Excuse me,” I said, ducking roughly.

Once in the bathroom—the tweezers, the mirror—I search for black hairs that need plucking. Grudges, I name them and celebrate the audible catch and slide of their release. On my finger the root of one chin hair has a coat of skin—taste it—almost to my lips before I shudder and wash it away. What if someone were watching? Changed, in fresh make-up, I returned to the kitchen.

“How’s things at Books Consort-e-um?” My mother asked me.

I feel Christi’s eyes. They are soft, dusting me. She knows this needles, my mother’s renaming everything I share.

It’s not totally off base, Christi has told me. Everyone has trouble with names. Like she can’t remember so she goes by association. You work in books, there’s a word, Consortium. Books Consortium. It makes sense, okay?

“Great. Did I tell you I got an office? I finally moved into a real office. It’s pink. Really, really pink. Everyone comments on that, the cognitive dissonance, even people who don’t know me, that it seems a strange color. For me, I mean. Office conversation. Anyway things are great. Busy, everyone’s excited about the catalog this season. We’ve got what’ll probably be the last Kurt Vonnegut,” I said.

Quickly I chopped onions to get the risotto going. Olive oil, toss with rice, chicken broth and simmering. My mother stood behind me.

“Can I help?” she asked.

“No. I’ve got everything. Sit with dad, enjoy. Want a glass of wine?” I smiled. “Christi, I forgot about wine. To ask you. All I’ve got is the cooking. Did you get any?”

Christi’s dismay stormed quickly.

“No, no, no, baby, don’t worry. Not your fault. I wasn’t thinking. You were busy. It’s okay,” I said.

Fussing with the rice, I addressed my mother still behind me, kitchen conversation.

“Risotto’s tricky. You have to time it just right. You want it to need a bite but not be crunchy. Should be creamy,” my voice trailed and stalled after the word creamy as I watched her stiffen and pale.

“Otherwise the texture is wrong, gooey,” I said.

“You didn’t use cream, did you? Your dad can’t eat cream. Charlie can’t digest milk sugars,” she said.

I shook my head.

“No cream. Of course not. Dad can’t eat dairy. I know. Jesus. I know that. What I meant was extra starch dissolves and makes the risotto creamy. It’s a word, ma, creamy,” I say. “Jesus. Relax. Go sit. Really. Talk to dad. Enjoy. I do things faster anyway.”

She ignored my plea but shuffled a little out of the way. She looked so small. I wanted to make her happy.

“Honestly. You can do the dishes,” I laughed. “If you absolutely need to do something.”

For a few minutes the silence was companionable. The rice burbled upon a dash of wine. Smiling I caught Christi’s eye—our check-in—everything was fine.

“Music?” she asked. “Anything?”

“Um huh, the, you know, jazz with the guy. Whoo,” I said.

She got my meaning. A CD we bought on a date—soothing, the memory of a perfect evening. My mom looked at me, uncomprehending.

“Nothing.”

Christi launched into the story. I shook my head slightly.

Ignoring me, Christi bent to my mother.

“We bought a CD at a concert we went to, on a date. A jazz place,” she explained.

The court jester, the bard, the clown, Christi-blue crazy eyes. A born storyteller, my lover, who wants to include everybody, she doesn’t understand my saying nothing and continued in her opportunity. Her phone rang. She held a hand over it and pointed upstairs. I nodded and she left me with my family. Later Christi would tell me she spent most of the conversation trying to get off the phone because she heard me yelling.

In a dance around my kitchen I slid, dipped to grab the grater and turned to get my cheese, mom behind me. Her voice was bleaty, tentacles shivering.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Grating cheese,” I said.

“You’re not going to put that on anything, are you?” she asked.

“No, it’s staying in this bowl,” I said.

“Because.”

“Dad has Crohn’s,” I interrupted. “I know. This is for you, me, and Christi.”

My mother hasn’t stopped her conversation.

“He’ll get very sick. He has Crohn’s disease and Celiac Sprue,” she continues.

“Yes ma. No wheat, no dairy. I know. No dairy. For over thirty years,” I say.

She continues gathering speed. I lose track of the back and forth of what gets said. The conversation loops and repeats.

“He can’t,” she says.

“Ma, I know, okay? The cheese is NOT going in anything. Back off,” I say.

Her mouth keeps moving. It is a flying train.

I turn.

There is no present tense, my age now, irrelevant. The years between five, ten, fifteen, twenty-five, thirty-four vanish. We’ve passed that one second where the entirety of my life flies at me, every grievance, all the pick-peck-picking, time backwards, a storm of nails take shreds away my skin and plays bass on my veins. I’m muscle, raw skeleton, vibrating, vibrating. The room holds still a second before I explode.

“You think I’m going to poison my dad? You think I’m some stranger and I need to be told?” I say.

My mother backs away.

“I can’t believe you’re still going on. He’s not in here, worried. What the hell are you doing? I know ABOUT the CHEESE, okay? I can’t believe this,” I say.

Then high decibel, “I WAS THERE MA! Who do you think you’re talking to? I mean. You’re amazing. You really are. I was there. It wasn’t just you. That was my life too. That’s why the cheese in here in a fucking bowl. Do you see that?”

I thrust the bowl towards her face.

“Okay, so you say it once. That’s going to stay separate, right? And I say yes. That’s fine. You worry. Fine. But you gotta stand on top of me and push and push and push. Like I’m going to poison my father? Fuck you. The reason I’m even grating the fucking cheese is for you, a treat, because I know you don’t buy it, like it’s going to contaminate his food through the fucking air. Or maybe you don’t want to make him jealous. Whatever. I don’t care. I was there when he stopped eating cheese. It was like when I had surgery. I was five okay? But no. You’re the only person who could possibly have a memory. His being sick is the story of my whole fucking life, okay? But you know what? Fuck you. You’re RIGHT. It was only you. You know what? I can’t be here,” I say.

“You mean you’re not going to eat your beautiful meal?” my mother asks me.

“No, ma. Your deal,” I say.

She steps closer and reaches towards me.

“Then I won’t eat it either,” she says.

I yank my arms away from her.

“Get out of my way,” I hiss through clenched teeth.

The impulse to grab and shove her dies. My spine is a slinky, melting, it won’t hold me up. I soften, barely whisper.

“Please. Trust me. It’s better that way,” I say.

I start to leave but turn and dash up the stairs where Christi stands momentarily frozen. She catches me.

“I’m here. It’s okay. You’re okay. I’m here,” she says, squeezing me.

My dad finally enters the fray.

“Where are you going?” he asks.

Like a teenager, I shout back, “Out. I. Don’t. Know.”

His tone stays even.

“When will you be back?” he asks.

“Late,” I say, less extreme.

Blinking, Christi steers me. At the driveway she raises her eyebrows. I snap my head away.

“Mexican?” she asks.

“I’m not hungry,” I say.

“Whatever. Margaritas?” she asks.

I nod, now crying.

“Damnit. I’m so sorry. That was exactly, I knew, I didn’t want it to be this way. It’s like everything just goes white. I’m sorry it’s so ugly. I didn’t want. We were doing so great, you know? I really,” I say.

Christi’s hand is large and strong against my leg.

“Honey, it’s okay. There’s history,” she says. “I understand. Taco Morelos?”

I drop my head back so my face is flat below the car ceiling.

“You know the funny thing?” I ask. “I mean you heard me last week. I called her to apologize—right speech, you know?—for all my screaming and cursing. What did I say? That it was disrespectful and she did nothing to deserve it? Shit. Nothing. So what does it take? Nothing. I’m right back where I started,” I say.

We sit at our usual table and order, Enchiladas Suiza and the steak with bacon and jalapenos. Supersize jumbo margaritas. A Mexican game show is playing. Bright and shiny. I get lost in it until we get our drinks. Everything is incredibly large and incredibly far away. I pick up a chip, turn it over and replace it. For a second I’m surprised my feet don’t swing above the floor. Still big. Christi drinks. Nudges a glass towards me.

“Do we have any?” I ask.
Red-red lips expel their straw.

“Phew. Thought you’d never ask me,” she says, passing me a Vicodin.

I crack then swallow the pill in two pieces.

“Better this way,” I say. “Like I would deliberately poison him?”

Christi cocks her head at me.

“I don’t think that’s what she meant,” she says.

Her voice and tequila dance seductive beneath my skin. Microscopic springs release by the thousands.

Rattlesnakes under my skin. My blood is whirring.

“You’re changing the topic,” Christi tells me.

“I didn’t say anything,” I say.

Sheepdog. I need a sheepdog in my head. Keep it together, focus.

“Whatever. You want my take?” she asks.

I nod.

“At the studio the other day. Did you notice how we didn’t really have a conversation?” Christi asks.

“We were talking,” I say.

“Yes but. It was like everything your mom said was about her. We’d look at my painting and somehow I’d never get a word in. Somehow it was very dramatic, When I look at my work, I’m sure you understand. I’m not always sure what I’m trying to communicate. I see things abstractedly. I’ve been studying clouds and planets. What I paint doesn’t necessarily look like a cloud or a planet. Sometimes I spend weeks trying to get one image because of the light, you know how that is. Most people say something, like, I like your painting. Or That’s cool. At the very least, The colors are pretty. How long you’ve been painting? maybe—compliments are nice, you know, even if they’re lying. I think she said Palmer’s one painting was interesting.”

I spill salsa on the menu.

“Which means she doesn’t like it,” I say. “I hate that. It’s so obvious. And now I use it, when I don’t know what to say. It’s interesting.”

Christi’s face goes hound.

“You say that to me,” she says, quietly.

“Well sometimes it is. Interesting. Like there’s a story. Jesus, baby. You know I won’t like everything.”

“What don’t you like?” she asks.

“The octopus Hand of God painting. Besides, if my reaction was always the same it wouldn’t be worth anything. Oh shit. Christi-blue,” I say, food back up my throat.

The waiter comes.

“How’s everything?”

I gulp. Christi is chewing.

“Great,” I say.

“Another drink?” he asks.

We nod, in harmony. He leaves. I wave a chip at Christi.

“So. You were saying?” I ask.

“I was saying. Rah. Even if I was, I wouldn’t be anyway. I don’t know, like, it was strange. I mean I get what you’ve been saying. Your dad’d try to say something and she’d interrupt back to her work again. He wasn’t much better, only with him it was all official sounding. His interpretation of the models, what was it? That he took a narcissistic pleasure in being painted. That she was. . . I forget. You know, those studies I did at Atelier. Nothing like I like the way you use color, or line, or shadow, any of the usual shit. Rah. Jesus. A narcissistic pleasure. If Josie was there she’d be like oh yeah? Think you’re so smart. You think you know everything. And even, even if you did, you don’t anyway. Narsa-sa-sis-DIC. So? I know. Think you’re so smart using big words. Yeah, well, I know big words too! Nars-dic,” she says.

I giggle and cheer, “Go Josie! Go monkeys!”

Christi takes another drink. Shakes her finger at me. Tries not to laugh.

“Monkeys.Really. Don’t encourage them!” She scolds me. “But sweetie, it was strange. Like it was all about him. Not that it wasn’t sweet, in a way. I mean he wasn’t showing off—he was serious. Nobody gets all serious about my shit like that. Just made me feel kinda stupid, you know. But I don’t know. Your parents are awesome. They bought a drawing.”

In her pause, we both look down and drink. Our margaritas are big. Christi continues.

“Then there was all that I’m sure Ruth can tell you it wasn’t easy, growing up with me. Maybe she was baiting you, but almost like showing off. At the studio was really, really strange. You know how babies are like all-about-me? She’s kinda the same way. Otherwise she’s not there. Blind, maybe? Like she can’t make that leap,” Christi says. “You need to stop explaining. It doesn’t matter what tiny pieces you break it into. It’s not simple and she doesn’t understand.”

“It’s, it’s, it’s just, I mean fuck her. Like his being sick wasn’t my fucking life? It’s funny how you learn how things in your family might have been a little different. Like my ex made this huge deal about farting. She said she never did and then she called it fluffing. That made me crazy. Like are you seven? A Victorian lady? You have a body. Everyone farts okay? Her ignorance was stunning. That you had shit in you from years ago and that’s why a yogi who stopped eating kept shitting. This was the reason for colonics. I think she learned that from her ex girlfriend. Eating disorder one might say. When I explained that intestine’s lining sloughs off a healthy person around every seventy-two hours and the bacteria in your gut keep digesting themselves, regardless, she didn’t believe me. I think I left rather than continuing the conversation. I mean of all the fucked up fights, that was the one I walked out the middle of. I’m sorry. I don’t need to be talking about her. Was just I realized a lot alone that night. That growing up the sound of my dad passing gas in his sleep was comforting. It meant he was alive. It wasn’t the soundtrack of him retching or on the toilet in pain. I don’t mean to be disgusting or reveal anything but that’s Crohn’s disease. It was always so extreme, like he could die each time. I’d get home and the fridge would be full of Jell-O and I’d know he was sick. As a kid I was afraid of red light. Like I’d shut my eyes at exit signs and had to move my bedroom because the bridge reflection was paralyzing. Brake light river jiggle. I never put it together, that was red Jell-O, the way it held the light. But you’re not kidding about psychobabble. It’s a second language. I was fluent at five. Defense mechanisms. You’re acting like your mother. Baby Freud. With a twat. How’d you think Freud would like that?” I ask.

Christi waves her straw at me.

“You didn’t let me finish,” she says.

“Sorry,” I say, shrinking.

I suck down my drink. Christi catches and holds my eyes before she starts talking.

“Dzzt. That’s not what I meant. Listen to me. Here’s the thing. You could bang your head against the same wall the rest of your life. What your mom understands is that you’re upset. She’s said something and you’re upset. And given her face, I know she wants to make it right.”

“She’s been apologizing my entire fucking life. It’s great. Nothing changes. Don’t mean shit,” I say.

I shove the chips for emphasis.

“But it does. Now it does. Because that is what she is capable of. What she can give. So it means a lot. To her. To apologize. Which means you can choose to give her the opportunity. You have to plan what you say. You tell her she hurt your feelings and you want an apology. That you didn’t mean to start screaming and you apologize. Nothing more than that. Don’t go into what was said. Don’t get into the why,” Christi says. “You need to practice what you’ll say.”

The Corona bottle filled with salt becomes my microphone.

“So scripted. Hehhem, mom, you hurt my feelings and I want an apology?” I ask.

Christi narrows her eyes.

“And,” she says.

My swallow goes down the wrong pipe and I sputter margarita. Christi squints again.

“And I’m sorry,” she finishes for me.

Suddenly my hands fascinate me. I talk through clay. My voice is tiny.

“And I’m sorry I yelled at you and I shouldn’t have stormed out. I mean I’m not sixteen there’s no reason I should behave that way. You don’t deserve any of it,” I say.

Red-red lips. Firefly dimples flash-flash.

“Exactly. Except I forgot and cursed at you. Ready?” she asks.

“I guess,” I say.

The waiter drops the check and takes our plates.

When did we eat?

Christi pays. We are silent three blocks. At Lake Street I gulp loudly. Christi pets my leg. Once home I follow Christi up the stairs, realize I left my phone in my purse, head back down, and am then trapped by my mother on the stairs. She’s sniffling, she babbles.

“I’m sorry I’m such a horrible person that you can’t even be in the same house,” she says.

I interrupt, “Mom. Stop.”

“That you can’t even eat with,” she continues.
“Stop. Mom, Mom. Stop, okay? Just shut up. Please,” I say.

She doesn’t hear me.

“I know you grew up with, it was difficult, there were deficits.”

This time I interrupt her shouting.

“Shut up. Just shut the fuck up. You don’t get to rehash this idea you have of my life. It’s not. Just not this time,” I pause. Inhale, exhale.

“Look. It’s really simple. You hurt my feelings, I over-reacted and I’m sorry I was shitty,” I say.

My mom takes a breath to speak. I can see her thoughts beneath her forehead lines. Her same words are orange in her throat. They radiate. I cut her off before she can repeat the scene.

“Okay. Now you say Ruth I’m sorry I hurt your feelings. Then I say thank you. End of conversation.”

The evening’s soft purple is swallowed by a darkening gray. The circles under my mother’s eyes absorb our silence and deepen. We have the same hairline, the same shape head. She takes a new now shaky breath.

“Ruth, I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”

“Thank you. I’m sorry too. I love you mom. Good night.”

One of my cats chases a rabbit-fur mousie with a rattle. We watch him careen around the landing.

My mom starts again.

“I’m so glad,” she says.

An ambulance screams by.

“I’m so glad,” she continues.

This time I cut her off.

“No, you don’t get to do your unworthy martyr bullshit,” I smile—it’s a little forced. “Okay? I love you. You know that.”

A moment goes by.

“’Night mom, I love you, okay?” I say.

I hug her quick and jump away. My dry skin turns hot, cracks like asphalt. Once up the stairs, I collapse into Christi. She pulls me in and kisses my forehead, whispers.

“I’m proud of you sweetie. You did great. Maybe screaming shut the fuck up wasn’t exactly what I was thinking. But you did great.”

We take out contacts and brush our teeth. By rote and routine. Christi whines as I floss.

“You take too long,” she says.

We pee, don pajamas and climb into bed.

Do I realize with this evening my life is changed entirely?

Years later my therapist will tell me, “There is touch that hurts and there is touch that heals. Touch that heals is what you have with Christi.”

   *  *  *

This conversation is a cat bounding through cobwebs, the water that glistened on it now flung against black fur drying fast. That silk is undeniably changed. But can the spider now revise and reweave or does she mourn the loss of food she had caught? It was only after years with Christi that I could conceive of that silk thread to build.

For the most part the conversations I have had with my mother were about impersonal things, slightly above weather level diversions. When I look back for answers as to why, why we were not close there is nothing but blank light hurting my brain. My grievances are first world problems, inadequate details of a privileged life, unreasonable and petty. They feel like squawky justifications. So I was a bullied child, miserable at a regimented private school where they wouldn’t let me read or advance, wahn. So my crying was ignored every day. That doesn’t fully explain it. I was clothed, fed, taken to every kind of lesson, schlepped to friends’, given money, given everything. There was never any violence.

   *  *  *

I am not able to resolve how my mother fits into my sexual memory. The rundown on abusive behaviors. Did she penetrate me with objects? No. Perform oral sex? No. Have me service her? No, I know that didn’t happen. Did she masturbate me? No. But then there is a gray area and I have this weird sense of suggestion, that a suggestion was made to me. A suggestion made by Ray that my mother was the same, that they felt the same about me, a sexual feeling. I have no real memory, just that revulsion; it leadens my bones, houses rattlesnakes under my skin. I have images, frozen moments of space, images of his summer place with its monstrous exposed ceiling beams, bright pillows on the couch, wallpaper that was Victorian advertising and the smell of quiche. Just the sense there was something sexual, about me, something dirty.

   *  *  *

The bath is where I learned to masturbate myself.

Three, four, five, six, I don’t know. Each time I think I’ve got my age pinned down, someone tells me a story they assert was from an earlier time than I thought it did. What I remember. It was a singing feeling up in that hole. Like drinking cider that had turned, undiscovered. From an early age I masturbated often. My parents’ tub had the faucet in the middle on the wall. I put my knees up and my fists under my butt to get it closer to the spigot. My mother came in once and caught me. She laughed.

Doesn’t that feel good. And. It’s important to keep oneself so clean. One’s vagina clean.

And in the bath with me, her stomach a disgusting jiggled planet above the spread purple and floating hairs.

There was another game I played. I had shiny plastic bracelets, bangles. Primary colors, also, pink, purple, aqua and green.

Called them ginnee-rings.

Dimpled knees, scarless hands, I’d stand and wrap my vaginal lips around one, shaking my hips till it fell, and shuddering I plopped back to the water. A little later, I had to be younger than seven, I peed in the diaphragm she left on the bathtub ledge, got out and dumped it out in the toilet. I remember thinking that was also a game to see if I could get there without spilling. It took me years to put together why as a child I hated her singing in the morning.

Bop-dee-be-bop-bum-bum-de-de.

She was too cheerful. Horribly off key. Bouncing, trilling, animal, announcing happy, she had just got laid.

Abusive, not abusive. Neither statement feels completely honest. It is more that I feel used.

   *  *  *

You’ve spun their guilt into gold. Rumplestiltskin-Rumplestiltskin-Rumplestiltskin. You don’t love them.

   *  *  *

Finding peace with memory is a children’s treasure hunt in a grass-overgrown alley. The glint and momentary flash turns out to be one earring missing its stone. A slightly corroded diary key. Half a ripped love letter that has miraculously survived the elements, a perfect plastic rose. I try to keep these pieces close to me, to hold them tight, but it is hard, hard, hard.

   *  *  *

Do you know where you’re goin to? Do you like the things that life is showing you? Where are you goin to? Do you know? Do you get what you’re hopin for when you look behind you, there’s no open doors what are you hopin for? Do you know?

   *  *  *

The hows and whys my relationship with Christi has enabled an ever-less-tentative relationship with my mother are complicated. First listening to her talk about her mom, now gone over a decade, I realize part of my relationship with my mother is all about me and determinedly I can change my reactions. The need to resolve old anger morphs into a clothing, something I can move around in even if it sticks to my skin, that thick air of urgency is a hard one to breathe in. Christi is an artist and perhaps my choice of her as a wife in some way validates my mother and her choices. Whereas I was not previously interested in art this new common soul gives my mother an in with me. Maybe she too has seen the seasons pass in her ever more mapped skin and wrestled with the same sense of urgency to resolve what a bad therapist might abstractly call our differences.

We were in New York visiting my parents. They took us to the Met and the Whitney. My mother then showed Christi her latest group of paintings. Perhaps I was on the phone when they started looking. The result was I opted not to join them. The paintings were of faces.

When Christi comes up to check on me hers is funny. Not twitching, but her forehead worry dents are deep and busy.

“You take your meds?” I ask. “It’s past four thirty.”

“Yeah, early,” she says. “Why?”

“You look, I don’t know. Like you ate something. Funny,” I say.

“Your mom’s painting faces,” Christi says.

I nod.

With a step Christi shuts the bedroom door and grimaces in the mirror.

“God I hope I didn’t make some weird face,” she says horrified.

“You didn’t,” I say. “I’m sure you didn’t. You came in fine.”

I peacock my hands, “You shut the door, then your face went funny. Oh honey don’t worry. In your art class you mentor people, look at stuff and give them feedback. You have that neutral reaction down automatically. It’s the only time I’ve got no clue to what you’re thinking, when we’re at art galleries. If you don’t say I have no idea. It helps when you’re catty.”

The look Christi gives me colors her solidly unconvinced. I sigh.

“God I hope I didn’t react too badly,” Christi says. “I told her I learned by studies done with a model. Studying faces, light, shadow, proportions. How you have sat for me and that maybe she could ask Charlie, I suggested. I don’t think she was offended. Or I hope she wasn’t. But she was a little huffy. I don’t have to look at faces to paint them she said. I know what faces look like. We have them imprinted on us from infancy.”

Christi-blue firefly dimples, like lightening, flash, flash. I stare at her.

“I think you just hit something. Just listen. I don’t have to look at faces; I know what they look like; we have them imprinted on us from infancy. If you substitute the word reality with faces. The fit isn’t perfect but it seriously goes a long way towards explaining things. I don’t know that I’ve ever been able to articulate what it was that was missing with her, outside reality. She’s never been interested in anything I called reality. Because she’s got that already, self-contained. She doesn’t need to look outside for reference, what she’s saying. Faces are imprinted. She doesn’t have to actually look at them to see. Do you remember my moment on the stairs?” I ask. “At dinner before it you said there was something childlike about her, that all-about-me thing one sees in children like she was stuck in her development. Am I making sense? Faces are the most basic place we go for information. The eyes are the window to the soul, you know that shit. Because the idea it’s all imprinted in her seems to explain everything to me. Why at some point I completely stopped trying to relate. There are still missing pieces. There is still that revulsion, that feeling from way back that I was there for some sort of gratification. Her gratification, not sexually so much as I was being used to fill something, some need there was no way of ever identifying. You think I’m crazy.”

“No honey,” Christi laughs halfway.

“It even explains her thing with names. Why she’d change them,” I say.

“That’s a reach. I suck at names,” Christi says.

“No, no. It’s not the same thing. You just ask. You might be embarrassed but you ask. She doesn’t. She renames with confidence, with absolute certainty. I correct her and she repeats the mistake, not the next day but with no time in between. I used to think she did it deliberately because she knew it pushed my buttons but now maybe not. Think about it. I don’t need to look at faces to see them. I don’t need to listen to you. I don’t need anything from your reality. She didn’t say you’re not real to me. My dad does that. Well, did. I don’t know honey. For years I’ve tried to figure out what was missing. Because far as I can tell there’s nothing diagnosable. Maybe some sort of cognitive deficits but again I’m not sure I believe that. She wasn’t interested the reality I moved in. This feels like physics, cracked open, that big,” I say.

   *  *  *

Like rattlesnakes buzzing under my skin.

   *  *  *

That I own a house still often surprises me. I wobble across my floors, a cue-ball shot astray. A house with a garage, a car. A new family moves in the house next door. They are young, from Mexico, her newly, him back and forth between countries the past ten years. They have a baby and Catholic iconography all over the place, crosses on their necks, decals on the car, a sticker on the porch warning the door knocking Mormons away. They ask me if I’ve lived here long. And about the neighborhood. We watch a clump of teenagers on the corner, dancing, laughing doing their thing. They are assorted shades of brown, flitting between oversized SUVs jacked out with block thumping speakers.

“They’re good kids,” I say. “It’s summer so they hang out but I don’t see them late. They’re good.”

My neighbors’ eyes narrow as two cops scream by.

“It’s a city,” I tell them, wave my hand. “You know. Something’s always happening. Neighborhood’s safe.”

They nod.

   *  *  *

There’s no place like home. Home, James, and don’t spare the horses. A man’s home is his castle. A woman’s place is in the home. I feel so at home here.

   *  *  *

I wonder how my new neighbors see me, a single woman with another woman coming and going constantly. They very likely realize I’m gay, that’s easy. But my life—how I afford it. Hard work? Frugal living? Do they think I have a sugar daddy? Each conversation I imagine cuts my life in to strange configurations. The subject never comes up. Largely we live indifferent, each house like a cake box, wound up tight. Still, I wonder how I’m seen. Because I am the girl who loved dandelions—weeds not noticed, until they are viewed with irritation. I am an exhibitionist, a narcissist, and have been so for as long as I can remember.

   *  *  *

Look at me, look at me, listen to me listen to me. My name is not Ruth. It’s Firetruck! Wee-oouu, weee-oouu, wee-oouu! Firetruck. I’m two now but when I’m eighteen I can change it. My name will be Ash-ah-rain-ah, triple the letters of Ruth. Ashahrainah jumping on the bed! Ashahrainah jumping on the bed!

   *  *  *

Maybe it started with my feeling I wasn’t quite what my parents imagined, that I wasn’t Athena sprung fully formed, grown from my father’s head. I was obsessed with my reflection. Since I was all stories I wanted to be certain there was something real in the mirror that didn’t change.

   *  *  *

Hotly, July unwinds. In my house I take bizarre chances. Putter naked in the bedroom windows. Hear the chorus in my head hum. The factual danger is in its volume. How the noise can subsume and obliterate me.

You’ll only get what you asked for. Get yourself raped. They’re different from us, you know. Don’t think for a second that anyone will feel sorry for you. Stupid slut.

More practically, Christi questions my choice of sheer curtains for a bedroom comprised of mostly windows.

“My dad’s mother threatened to skip my wedding. She didn’t want to see me look like a slut. Like that Madonna. I just know it. I had to promise to wear something modest,” I say.

My girlfriend raises an eyebrow. “Did you?”

“Kinda,” I say. “For a wedding dress, no. For me, yes. Except I let the straps slip to piss her off. Was stupid. Looked a little sloppy and I don’t think she noticed. I was her only grandchild. She was thrilled I was married. That I wasn’t gay. Oh well. What were we talking about?”

“The curtains,” Christi says.

I sigh. Ritzo jumps on the bed and kneads Christi’s stomach. She pushes him away. He jumps back. They continue this game. I ramble on.

“Fuck. I don’t know. It’s like I bought this house for the sunroom, cause I could knock out the wall and have a bedroom full of windows. Sunlight. So it would be bright and sunny in case I got depressed. But then I painted the room dark.”

I finger the gold curtains. There are many pulled threads.

“Fucking cats,” I mutter.

Ritzo looks at me. I jut my head towards him and stare wide. He continues to knead Christi.

“The previous owner left these white sheers. They were pretty. It was like being in the middle of all these sails. You know, billowing sails?” I ask.

Christi gestures.

“Yeah, billowing,” she says. “Your ship.”

I kiss her.

“My ex hated them. She tended more towards the baroque. Gilt. I guess the gold was our compromise,” I say.

“They’re transparent. You should get shades,” Christi says.

“I hate shades.”

“Blinds?” she asks.

“Worse. Except the wood ones and they are crazy expensive,” I say.

Christi’s voice drops, “Maybe you could ask your parents.”

My calculus is strange. Do the bad things that happened somehow equal the gifts I now receive?

   *  *  *

Rumplestiltskin-Rumplestiltskin-Rumplestiltskin.

   *  *  *

If crazy is a country I’ve left, forgiveness is a continent barely imagined. When I was a child the acrylic paints my mother used didn’t blend well. More than two colors and the result became mud. Forgiveness is the space in between molecules of red and yellow and blue, itself a periphery, the smallest diamond of air before brown. To err is human, to forgive, divine. Many times I have tried to read about this thing, letting go. Duty-bound I have hit the library only to incur massive fines. Each book I open puts an immediate fifty pounds on my eyes, and sleep. Forgiveness is a land of dust, human skin, grease, particles of other things, arranged with invisible intricacy, a Persian rug of dirt. I inhale and moments are reincarnated as altered DNA. Viral shedding affects every memory. Time loves the human ecosystem—its neurons, tendons and veins—their kiss so deep air is not required. I change back to a previous self without ever realizing. Beneath my skin. Letting go? The past is a kaleidoscope—it returns—the present tense upends.

   *  *  *

“Just as memories for ordinary experiences are made accessible when a current emotional—or mood-state is reminiscent of that experienced during encoding, the state of physiological hyperarousal and access to traumatic memory seem to be interconnected. The more the individual’s physiological/emotional state resembles that of the original trauma, the more likely retrieval of the trauma will be in the somatosensory memory of reexperiencing.” –Fay Honey Knopp, A Primer on the Complexities of Traumatic Memory of Childhood Abuse

   *  *  *

Wave bye-bye to your baby sis-ter. It’s important to feel clean.

   *  *  *

Forgiveness. In a religious context, my understanding has its limits. While this is a fact I can change, stubbornly I don’t. My ignorance remains—a Freudian slip? Am I just not ready? To let go. To make amends. In Judaism forgiveness is fairly easy; there is none. Judaism is a religion based upon the observance of laws, mitzvahs, their study providing the only way out. Transgression lies in the space between molecules of yellow and blue and red. The Hebrew God is impossible to know in His rage—He too breathes the recent past. He rides on thunder and guilt; He smites; He smites. Vengeance is the power of noise and with it He shows His might. The promised land beckons but entry is denied.

  *  *  *

My last year of college I was awarded a black box production space for a play I wrote. The play charted the course of an important dinner date on which a young woman becomes increasingly unhinged. I didn’t have the words post traumatic stress but that was what she was experiencing, flashbacks to when she was molested early. The central image was a carton of naked Barbies. Ray had given me Barbies, the dolls old, a little dirty, sometimes without clothing. Because this production was my greatest achievement my parents flew out to see it. Craig was with me, we were in the car with my parents after going to dinner to celebrate. My dad narrowed his eyes at me and asked if the play was about Ray. When I reflexively said no he insisted it was. They’d found that carton of dolls and toys when they cleaned my grandmother’s apartment. Congratulations, I remember thinking. You must be so proud of this realization. Since this dinner was where Craig and my parents were first to meet I did what any reasonable person in the situation would do. I drank heavily. By the time Craig and I got home I was in a keening rage.

   *  *  *

Anger is easy, unconscious as marrow, it moves in my bones. My bones move me. Sometimes I feel it all shaking, different from the buzz of rattlesnakes. From below my belly, a washer agitates ribs the wrong way against my skin, which moves in opposition. My jaw tightens. I swallow to keep the movement from reaching my brain, my brain cannot take all the thrashing. But it is something I cannot contain. My throat closes under what feels like an empty head. Up from around my tongue floods a profusion of spit. It is never seen, the shaking. There is only my skin, hard with gooseflesh I can’t explain, sweating and freezing. Words are rocks, sound hard to make.

   *  *  *

Because we have company my bags are newly cut. They are too high and crooked but at four I don’t care too much. I play underneath the dining room table, dark wood, wobbly. The leaves hang down and hide me. My grandma Gladys and Ray are having dinner but I don’t like what they’re eating so I’m allowed a plate of crackers under the table with me. There is a Bible story; the conversation rhythms strange. My dad and Ray are then fighting, about the story? About me. Something sexual, something sexual about me. Like Jonah got swallowed for masturbating only I know that’s not right, not what it is. After my dad threw Ray out no one said anything. I don’t remember anything changing. Nothing was explained. But I’ve always thought it meant he realized something Ray did. But nothing changed. Nothing was said.

   *  *  *

It’s been a decade and a half since my parents saw my play. I haven’t yet asked my dad either about my memory or about his car conversation. Held together by skin, I am a collection of stories, compressed and merging, the pressure now about to explode. Lying next to Christi I realize I will have to initiate this conversation and ask my father what happened and why he didn’t protect me. Forgiveness is beyond the reach of all my stories interrupting, crashing, breaking, now an impossible swirl of noise, beyond the vibrating shadows of pieces, uncatchable as dashing mice. Forgiveness would now be silence. I raise up on an elbow and watch my lover sleeping. Christi-blue crazy-eyes. Her left arm flails as if punching away flies.

“No-no-no,” she says. “Bugs.”

I kiss and smooth her forehead. “No bugs baby. Bad dream. You’re safe.”

She mumbles something and snuggles in. Again we sleep.

   *  *  *

Just like me, they long to be, close to you …

   *  *  *

I am a crow, attracted to what’s bright and shiny. I horde these things, weave them into my nest, into me—there are stainless razor blades, one earring, silver gum wrappers and a broken necklace with a possible diamond. Was there a point where I knew I could never change those stories, once certain accusations were made? What if all my emotions, my reactions, the things I say were based on lies made to fill a void—the void of no intelligence, no talent, no beauty, no drive—to create a dynamic personality different from those around me. The void tastes like apple juice, turned, I don’t know why.

   *  *  *

I am tripping on a fault line. I dance and try to fill it with words to keep the earth from shattering out beneath me. Because it feels like my life is built on stories. Fundamentally everyone’s is. Except. There’s very little that’s real to me. How much of my personality is feathers and tape, boots and paint? How much of my experience is based on memory and how much on intimation, invention, or just out and out bullshit? How far did I go as a child to gain attention? How extreme did my stories need to be?

   *  *  *

Mom, I have this memory.

It’s a fly in amber, unchanged. But the memory is sketchy and I don’t know if my understanding is correct and I can’t say what it means.

If I tell you, can we, sort through this? Because I need your corroboration.

The conversation I need to have starts after a phone call you got when grandma Gladys was divorcing Ray.

You came into my room.

That call was in the middle of the crisis. Gladys had become confused. She took too much medicine. Suicidal gesture? With Pepto-Bismol if I remember correctly. It interfered with her beta blockers or something. Two bottles of Pepto-Bismol, not the usual OD.

There were mutual accusations of mental cruelty between her and Ray—I remember this collection of sounds repeated and repeated. So the family debate was heated about whether or not a judge would grant the divorce and then, what would be done about Gladys’s property. Ray had stolen money but for some reason that wasn’t enough, that the family’s credibility on this accusation was lacking, maybe. It wasn’t a small sum, four thousand, again if I remember correctly.

You got off the phone and came into my room to talk to me. The suggestion was made that I testify Ray had abused me sexually.

It is here my thoughts get spun in cotton.

Why?

Certainly my testimony would have sealed Ray’s coffin and secured Gladys’s estate, the condo, accounts, whatever furniture, art and jewelry.

Was this idea of abuse floated here because something was known? Suspected? Or was it a scheme? I was in fact studying to be an actress—what better stage than one with such high stakes? Either way how could this have been deemed a benign request to make of me?

How did you come to suggest such a thing, or if the idea was not yours, how did you come repeat it?

Or is this all something I’ve imagined and concocted all high dungeon? Because I suspect this is memory, accurate memory. It is a fly in amber, unchanged, with the rest of the scene unfolding as I screamed.

What did I scream? Get out of my room? Leave me alone? Fuck you, get away from me?

When I shut my eyes on this recollection there are no lights spots that dance. Past and present, I am only staring at my bedroom door, the wood frame of the door mirror, maple, glowing. The image doesn’t go away. I’ve wanted to add details, to make the story more dramatic, always with my throwing a knife, but it didn’t happen that way. Instead when I got up from under my covers my knees began clicking, the sound almost metallic, of a lock catching. The noise, its echo, made me thirsty. With any amount of drinking my throat remained dry and my hands heavy, heavy. I didn’t want to do anything to move them. Only a cigarette later confirmed my breathing. Hand to mouth, suck in, flick-flick, expel and there I am, operated by an internal command center still working.

   *  *  *

This is a conversation imagined, water glistening on a spiderweb. It was only after years with Christi that the silk to weave and catch such liquid was even conceived of. So maybe the imagined conversation that begins Mom, I have this memory is a real possibility.

   *  *  *

Rumplestiltskin-Rumplestiltskin-Rumplestiltskin.

 

 

BIO

Ruth Berger writerRuth Gila Berger is thrilled to be published by The Writing Disorder. She has a piece in Frequencies 4 (Two Dollar Radio), April 2014, and another piece published by Permafrost, Spring 2014 (all three pieces are contained in a full length memoir in progress). Her resume has over a dozen finalist commendations, the most recent from Arts & Letters for their 2012 nonfiction contest. Past publications credits include Gulf Coast (where she was given an honorable mention in their 2006 nonfiction contest) Creative Nonfiction, Chelsea Review, Water~Stone Review, GSU Review, Great River Review and the Emrys Journal.

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David Rose author

DAVID ROSE INTERVIEW WITH THE WRITING DISORDER

by Ruby Cowling

 

Drop Cap An interview with David Rose, “hidden gem of the British short story”. Author of Posthumous Stories (currently shortlisted for the 2014 Edge Hill Prize) and Vault: an “anti-novel”, his work has been described as “euphorically paranoid, slyly narrated, often hilarious” (The Guardian) and “deft, deliberate and utterly delicious” (3:AM). Here he’s generously answered some probing questions about the advice given to young writers, different artistic approaches, and what it means to have lived a “boring” life. Thank you, David.

 

David Rose was born in 1949, in a small semi-rural town outside London, moving later to another small, entirely suburban town slightly nearer London. He left school at 16 with two O-Levels and spent his working life on the Post Office counter.

 

WD: A review headline described you as a “hidden gem”. How long were you writing before you were published?

DR: I had my first story published at the end of 1988, in The Literary Review, which was then edited by Auberon Waugh (the son of Evelyn Waugh) – I still have his handwritten letter of acceptance. I had by then been writing fiction for about four or five years.

 

WD: As a younger writer, did you have a mentor? Did you feel generally encouraged or discouraged by the people in your life to pursue the writing of fiction?

DR: I had written the usual sub-Eliot poetry in my teens, but never thought of writing fiction, or writing seriously, until my mid-thirties. It happened spontaneously: I suddenly had an idea for a story, based on a man I met on a bus, and wrote it out of curiosity. As it happened, I was working with a woman whose daughter knew the novelist Graham Swift – this was around the time of his writing Waterland. I had read an extract in Granta, then read his earlier novels, and wrote to him through that connection. When I finished the story, I sent that to Graham too, for an opinion. He was tactfully encouraging, despite the amateurishness of the story. So he was in a way my first mentor, but not in any more active sense than that. But that was enough to make me join a local creative writing adult-education course. As to friends and family: I never showed my writing to friends or family, and never would. If they want to read it now, they can buy it.

 

WD: Young writers are sometimes advised to have “one true reader” for whom they write (for Stephen King, it’s his wife). Do you have one, or have you had one?

DR: The one reader we are writing for or to is that reader who has read the identical books, and had similar experiences, i.e. ourselves. We write for ourselves, initially, then consider others. I don’t think we can consciously aim our work at a specific readership; that’s too calculating.

But if we do happen to have a specific friend as a reader, that’s a different matter, and a bonus. Wasn’t it Steinbeck who wrote a long (unposted) letter to his agent every morning before a day’s writing, as a way of clarifying what he wanted to write?

 

WD: What are your tastes in other art forms? Do you enjoy experimental music, visual arts, etc, or are your tastes more conventional?

DR: I have always had an interest in all the arts – music, painting, literature – from my teens, though the interest wasn’t nurtured at school. My tastes in music and painting mirror my taste in literature: Twentieth-century Modernism and beyond. So in music, the discovery of Mahler was overwhelming (as was Mahler’s discovery of Dostoyevsky), but also then leading on to the discovery of the Second Viennese school of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, their contemporaries such as Bartok and Janacek, the Americans – Copland, Ives, Harris, the later Minimalists, and jazz… One discovery always leads to another in an endless ramification.

Likewise in art, the great Modernist movements leading onward and, by their confrontation and engagement with the past, backward (as with music: Weber leads backward to early polyphony…). I thus have an interest in most contemporary artforms, apart from conceptual art (an oxymoron). I think we do need to immerse ourselves in the expressions of our age, which are most condensed in the arts but should extend to philosophy and history. (Old-fashioned Humanism, I guess I’m advocating.)

 

WD: There are a lot of “how to write” books and blogs around. To what extent do you buy in to the importance of sticking to agreed formats – such as the 3-act story structure? If this “works”, why do something else?

DR: I haven’t seriously read any ‘How-to-write’ books – I find the idea of them dispiriting. You can only learn how to write copies of stories/novels. Better to read good citical books on literature, and learn by example.

Agreed formats produce formula writing. That is fine if you want to write ‘best-sellers’ or Hollywood scripts – and it’s equally fine if you do want to do that – but not if you want to write something original. I don’t believe for one minute in ‘the 3-act story’ – it’s similar to Aristotle’s rules on drama, which were simply describing current practice, not prescribing how drama should work.

Formats work, of course – that’s why they exist – and will obviously go on working, but will do so with diminishing returns, and eventually the formats wear out. Just ignore them.

 

WD: Is part of a writer’s job to expand the form in which s/he is writing? Is writing simply a personal “emission” or transmission, or does a writer need to be aware of the historical context of their genre (including literary fiction as a genre) and the direction in which it’s going, and take some responsibility for their part in that?

DR: Yes, I do think it’s the writer’s concern to expand the form – that is a logical result of simply finding one’s own approach, own voice, and producing the one (or more, if you’re lucky) work that only you can contribute, which seems to me the only worthwhile reason for doing anything.

Is it ’emission’ or ‘transmission’? It’s both. It starts as emission – finding one’s voice and subject – then becomes transmission in clarifying it for others, which is how it becomes literature. I always think of Sartre’s definition of literature as a person sitting quietly in a room, using their freedom to write in addressing a reader sitting quietly in another room using their freedom to read it.

But I believe a writer’s first duty (only duty, since the rest follows naturally) is to the initial inspiration; in getting that idea out intact and alive, and finding for it its natural form. Once that is captured, the revision stage becomes a process of transmission, and of engagement.

I do think we need to be aware of what has already been written in our own field. Literature is community, not solipsism, and finding our own voice is only done by engagement with others. So as I have said about engaging with our time, we do need to be as aware as possible of the history of our chosen genre, and although it’s impossible to read everything, to at least be conversant with the range of what’s on offer. But it’s probably unnecessary to say this; most writers were readers long before they became writers.

I don’t think we are individually reponsible for the direction of a genre, because such direction can’t be controlled or directed. As Popper pointed out in science, and history, progress can’t be predicted. But in the process of finding one’s unique ‘take’, and in engaging with the genre and body of existing work, that uniqueness of voice will inevitably alter the direction of history, however marginally.

Because part of finding one’s voice lies in opening up new approaches, exploiting the possibilities of the form. I think this is especially true of the short story, which is the most Protean of literary forms, with limitless possibilities – many of them still currently ignored. But the important thing for me was always allowing the idea to dictate its own shape. It has been commented that my stories can be bewilderingly different, but I have never set out to ‘do something different’ – only to find the ideal form for a particular idea, and come up when successful with something fresh.

 

WD: What do you think about the argument that writers who are writing now must have an online presence, a profile?

DR: I am firmly of the pre-internet generation, and feel closer to writers such as David Markson and Cormac McCarthy in their non-use of the digital world. However, when Vault was first accepted for publication, my agent advised me to have an ‘on-line presence’ in the form of a blog – which he set up for me – and by joining Facebook. No one ever read the blog, but Facebook proved rewarding in making contacts and, in a number of cases, genuine friends, as well as reconnecting to some old ones.

It enabled me too to become acquainted with several writers whose work I would never have encountered otherwise – American writers in particular: Steve Himmer, whose novel FRAM I read in manuscript and loved (soon to be published); Edmond Caldwell, whose post-modern masterpiece Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant I went on to review several times, including in American Book Review; and Oisin Curran’s brilliant late-Modernist novel Mopus, which is still scandalously unknown even in America.

In turn, they and others have discovered my work, and stirred interest in it in America, Brazil and elsewhere. So it’s reciprocal, and that is the point. To set up a ‘presence’ in the form of relentless self-promotion will backfire. Literature is a community of writers and readers, and use of the internet is one way – now I suppose the quickest way – of tapping into and becoming part of that community.

 

WD: You’ve said elsewhere that “my own life has been extremely boring”. Yet you produce very rich and interesting fiction: in spite of, or because of, this quiet life?

DR: When I described my life as boring, I meant outwardly – most of it spent working, at what would appear to be a boring desk job. Actually, it was anything but – on the Post Office counter I was in close contact with thousands of people over the years, from the whole spectrum of society, many of whom I came to know well. And many of whom had led interesting lives; many of them were very funny, and some deeply strange.

Life will always trump fiction. Many of these people I could never have made up, and a number of them were the starting point for my fiction. It was, as someone pointed out to me, the ideal job for a writer.

But the imaginative conversion of the material into fiction takes place in that silent, empty room, in the evenings, which I would spend either writing or reading. Writers live a rich interior life, but an outwardly boring one. The ‘hell-raisers’, the drinkers – the hell-raising and drinking was all done when they weren’t writing (drinking doesn’t help you write; it helps you to not write).

 

WD: What advice do you have for writers starting out?

DR: I have never seen the point of advice on writing itself; if you need to write, you will, and you’ll find your own way. But it’s the next stage which becomes tricky: getting your work published and known.

My only advice on that would be to get involved. Don’t just submit to magazines – subscribe to them. Set one up, or help on an existing one. Starting a magazine may be easier now, in the digital age, or harder – I don’t know. It was perhaps easier in the old days of photocopying and stapling and distributing small magazines round colleges or bookshops.

In my case, I became involved in a print magazine, Main Street Journal, initially as a contributor, when it was just getting off the ground. Then, when it was refused Arts Council funding, I became involved financially, then editorially. Paradoxically, that meant we could no longer use my work in it (it would have been vanity publishing) but that didn’t matter. It made me friends and contacts who later proved immensely valuable. But at the time, it also brought satisfaction: to spot talented writers and excellent work in the unsolicited submissions, and be in a position to do something with it is deeply rewarding. It’s the community aspect again; give and take. And if you don’t support others, why should they support you?

 

WD: What’s next in your writing life?

DR: Next in my writing life? There is no next; my writing life is over. I have an experimental – and I believed unpublishable – novel due out in November [title: Meridian]. That I think will be my swan-song.

 

 

BIO

Ruby CowlingRuby Cowling was born in West Yorkshire and now lives in London, UK, working as a freelance writer for nonprofits. Winner of the 2014 White Review Short Story Prize and the 2013 Prolitzer Prize from Prole magazine, she was a finalist in the February 2014 Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers as well as being Highly Commended in the 2012 Bridport Prize.  Her recent print/online publication credits include The Letters Page, Unthology 4, The View From Here, and, in audio format, 4’33” and Bound Off. She is represented by Euan Thorneycroft at A M Heath.

 

 

 

0
Jacob Reecher

In the Care of Professionals

by Jacob Reecher

 

Drop Cap Fifteen people are playing bingo. The prize is a Twizzler. Any one person can win a maximum of two Twizzlers, and no one can win twice until everyone has won once. These people are men between the ages of 18 and fuck-knows, and this is the first time they’ve been reasonably quiet all day – although there are the obligatory bingo jokes.

A petit blonde nurse, dressed in her own street clothes like all of the half-dozen or so nurses, turns the crank and reads the number from a ball[1]. “B-4,” she says.

Covering the B-4s on his cards, Ryan, a young man with a widow’s peak of blonde hair and cartoonishly blue eyes says, “Before what?”

There is tepid laughter, but not from James, who shaved his wild beard in the lobby mirror yesterday[2], and who is in his third month on the ward[3].

“Ugh!” he says with sarcastic exaggeration. “I’m gonna throw something at you.”

James is the first among us to win a Twizzler, which is strange, because we’re allowed to play with as many boards as we believe will raise our chances of winning, and James is the only one of us with only one board. I’m playing with two myself; Ryan is playing with four; Dale, the tall one in khakis and a sweater with the strained and husky voice that sounds like the muscles in his throat are cramped in that way that wakes you up at night clutching your calf and wrenching the top of your foot towards your shin, is playing with six.

“N-44,” says the nurse.

“I can’t keep up with this shit,” says Andrew, a.k.a. Solo, who is bald and tattooed on his neck and wears his institute-issued gray sweatpants low like he is making a rap video. He’s playing with nine bingo cards, and he’s one of the last to get his candy. I don’t think he’s too upset about it – none of us would be. The only reason we’re sitting here playing Bingo is because the nurse said everyone would win eventually. A candy guarantee is enough to get fifteen grown men to play bingo when the only other options are Saturday-evening television[4], a paltry DVD/video collection, or reading a dime novel on a mattress that feels like a layer of Beanie Babies on slab of concrete.

Twizzler, anyone?

 

* * *

 

I arrived on the ward after spending twelve hours in detox. I did not need to spend twelve hours in detox; I blew a .02 on arrival and could have easily blown zeroes by breakfast. However, for reasons you can infer from the steak-knife scratches up and down my arm and the short in my bathroom’s electric socket, I was to be taken from detox to a mental hospital until a court hearing would decide my fate: return to school or remain on the psych ward until I was considered neither a threat to myself nor others.

And so I stood, handcuffs looped through a special leather belt that kept my hands graciously within junk-adjusting distance, outside door number six of some brown building covered in box elder bugs. I was cold, wearing only the white t-shirt and torn tight jeans the cops had pulled on me before carting me to detox. I had not shaved in four days, and my beard, which had been subject to several days’ worth of alcohol-induced testosterone spikes, was beginning to itch[5]. My hair was matted, unwashed and uncombed since my last shift at KFC two days ago, flattened into shameful hat-head. I was happy at least to be wearing the leather boots I have described as being “too fly,” but in honest they were cheap, and after only a few months of use were as close to falling apart as I was. I doubted they would survive the cold and snowy and wet Wisconsin winter.

With me, ringing the doorbell, was a Platteville police officer and some fucking intern whom I felt I recognized, and about whose presence I was not happy. What exactly was the logic in sending a student on a ride-along with the cop transporting another student from detox to the mental hospital? How did Platteville’s finest reconcile this plan with confidentiality?

“Well son,” Officer Half-Beard probably said to Intern before knocking on the door of the detox center to pick me up, putting his hand on Intern’s shoulder and strapping on his this-is-serious-policeman-stuff face. “Can you keep a secret, Champ?”

Platteville’s not a big campus. You see people again. And Intern, who served the vital purpose of holding things which Officer Half-Beard had no third hand for[6], would surely be pointing me out to his buddies in the student center, kicking off the highlight story of the lunch break with a “No you guys, see that dude? Well, one time….”

Finally a nurse named Katrina answered the door. She looked tired – not the way you look after a long day at work or an endless night out, but in the way a grade-school teacher with a naughty class looks in mid-May. She brought me inside and had Officer Half-Beard remove my cuffs. As I rubbed my wrists and followed her into the heart of the ward, Katrina asked me if I’d ever been on a psych ward.

I don’t remember whether I said yes or no. I had been in a psych ward, but only as a visitor.

“Well, we’re state-run,” she said, “so we have some pretty sick people here. Just let me know if you don’t feel safe.

“In here,” she ushered me through a door bearing the words “Treatment Room,” where she checked my vitals and asked if I were feeling signs of withdrawal. I said no, but she told me the nurses would find me every few hours to take my vitals and ask whether I felt any headaches or anxieties.

Katrina asked me to wait in one of the three “day rooms” until she got my personal room ready. Dinner would be served in about an hour.[7]

I won’t go as far as to say I felt unsafe, but in those first few minutes on the ward it was strange to – instead of guessing someone’s taste in music or sense of humor – to be prospecting likely levels of craziness[8]. It was a goofy little twist on that “new kid in school” feeling.

I had trouble sizing up the first patient who spoke to me. He was of average height, but looked longer because he was thin and wearing the gray sweat-suit that about half the patients wore.

“What are you here for?” he asked, looking at me with polite eye contact that because of the situation and his vivid bluer-than-O’toole eyes made me nervous.

I told him quietly.

He didn’t blink. “How long are you here?” he said.

“I dunno,” I said. “My court hearing is Tuesday, or Wednesday, they said, at the latest.”

“You’re lucky,” he said.

This may have been and may be true. Hell, it was and it is. It being true doesn’t make it less weird to hear when you said you tried to kill yourself three sentences ago.

“Wh-, uh, why are you here?”

The young man, whose name was Ryan, laughed and said, “Well Wednesday I woke up to the cops bangin’ on my door…well maybe I’d better start at the beginning.”

The story began to skip around a bit, due to Ryan’s ADHD. The jist of it is that Ryan “was fucked up in a Wal-Mart bathroom,” and somebody called the cops or an ambulance.

“I heard somebody banging on the stall door behind me,” he said, “so I quick flushed a needle down the toilet.”

EMTs took him away in an ambulance, but a bag of drugs was found in the stall. To avoid jail, Ryan said he was depressed and was sent to an expensive-as-shit psychiatric hospital outside of Milwaukee. To get out, he signed a settlement that allowed him to leave on several conditions: see a therapist, no drinking or drugs, et cetera.

“There was one little clause that fucked me,” Ryan said, indicating its size with a forefinger and thumb held half an inch apart. “It said I had to follow all my doctor’s treatment recommendations.”

Ryan’s doctor wanted him to take a non-stimulant medicine for his ADHD, but Ryan had no insurance and could not pay for the expensive medicine. When Ryan asked for cheaper meds, the doctor refused because he did not want to prescribe Ryan any stimulants.

“I told him to fuck himself, threw a Kleenex box at him, spit on the floor, and left. And the next morning I woke up to the police bangin’ on my door.”

Ryan and I played Texas hold ‘em with another patient our age named Jack. Jack had keen eyes and dark hair that on his chin formed an uneven beard and his head seemed to harden into a wet helmet no matter how long ago his last shower was. He wore discharge clothes, having been in solitary confinement for a month and a half prior to his arrival on the ward.

About three hands in a nurse named Jay told me my psychiatrist was waiting for me. The doc was a nice and hip-seeming guy with thick-framed glasses who wore his thinning hair like a fashion statement. He was a keen reader of body language and accurately put into precise words my every facial contortion. He asked me questions. I answered them as honestly as I could.

 

* * *

 

Detox sucked. The hangover wasn’t particularly bad, nor was the food[9]. What sucked was that I had no idea what would happen to me after I got out. Would I get home before my classes ended that day? In time for work at four? Or would I be taken to a mental hospital indefinitely? Most of my time in detox was spent soberly considering these questions.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if I’d had the assurance that I would be on my way home in a few hours with nothing but hospital clothes and a story to tell. I’m sure waking up in detox still drunk and without memory of the previous night would have a fun “The Hangover” ring to it.

For example:

I had been awake for three or four hours[10], and was sitting in an armchair in the lobby reading an issue of The Economist[11], when a red-blooded Wisconsin college boy stumbled out of his room and said to the nearest nurse, “Excuse me, could you possibly tell me where I am?”

“You’re at an alcohol detox treatment center in Madison.”

“I’m in Madison?”

“Yes.”

Maybe detox would have just been boring had it not been for this kid. He asked the nurse for his cell phone and began calling friends in a vain attempt to reconstruct his evening.

“The last thing I remember is being in my room, drunk as shit,” I heard him say at least seven times. “I don’t even remember the party.”

He was wearing a blue hospital shirt because the one he was brought in had been cut off, likely to resuscitate him the night before. When he tried the breathalyzer at eleven in the morning, he blew a .12.

Shit dude. I don’t exactly abstain myself, but…shit.

 

* * *

 

Technology has never been a friend to me. And you know, I really don’t care much for it either. In TV ads newfangled gadgets are like godsends, able to coolly ease and improve lives due to superior usability and quality. The Mac, the Smartphone, updates to my internet browser, digital cameras, have all played the role of my technological nemeses.

But my great enemy is the DVD player. Get me wrong not, I’m a movie buff. But I was, throughout high school and for several years during breaks from college at UW-Platteville[12], a childcare worker, and my time at Tiger Den, as it was called[13] during the school year[14], was exacerbated considerably when the TV’s good old trusty VHS tape player was replaced with a DVD player that’s remote was naturally lost instantly. This resulted in cumulative days spent on my knees between 2007 and 2011 in vain attempts to get past the main menu of movies that would not play when I pressed the player’s “play” button. I am 90% sure that the vocalized impatience of the Tiger Den kids[15] over those four years flipped something in my psyche. So the following anecdote is not altogether lacking in humor, and perhaps even some kind of poetry:

After the interview with my psychiatrist and another with a physician, I was again set loose on the ward. Ryan spotted me walking into the day room and asked if I wanted to watch Ocean’s 12. I would have been more excited about Ocean’s 11 or 13, but the other option was Paul Blart: Mall Cop – still an easy choice.

We asked a nurse, a black man with an African accent almost too strong to understand, to set up the movie for us, and settle down onto green furniture that looked like it was made from recycled McDonald’s play-places, but felt more like a stress ball. The nurse unlocked the cabinet of the entertainment center under the TV and inserted the disc into the DVD player. The TV was small and our “couch” was across the room. From where we sat, the screen was no farther across than my index finger held at arm’s length. I worried for a second about my film-viewing pleasure – I didn’t even have my glasses. The cable television characters that appeared on-screen before the nurse switched the input were blurry masses of tan and white.

I stopped worrying once the nurse hit the button and the screen turned to static, only static besides the words “No signal,” flashing in a little gray box in the middle of the screen. Wires were checked, another nurse was fetched.

“No signal.”

“No signal.”

I was bummed that Ryan and I couldn’t watch Ocean’s 12, but at the same time I finally knew how the kids felt on the days I couldn’t get the DVD player to work. It’s like you’d been promised something and the promiser reneged. It feels like being cheated.

 

* * *

 

I’m reading in the day room with the Packers/Colts game in its second quarter. Dale is at the puzzle table, Jeremy is behind him in an armchair, and Andrew is sweeping. This is a classic strategy to quiet tiresome talkers like Andrew, a strategy I learned week one of childcare: give small-time troublemakers and loudmouths menial jobs to keep them distracted.

John, a man whom I haven’t heard speak and who wears orange Crocs with his gray sweat-suit, enters and starts shuffling through puzzle pieces.

“Will ya fucking move?” says Jeremy with quick anger. “I can’t see the fucking TV.”

“Why should I?” says John. There are empty chairs and sofas all around the room, and John can’t move out of Jerry’s line of sight without abandoning the puzzle.

“I can’t see the fucking TV!” says Jeremy, his voice rising.

John grabs his crotch. “You want somma this, motherfucker?”

“No, and if you think I do you must be a faggot.”

“How old are you, thirteen years or thirteen months?”

“I’m 49.”

“Yeah, well I spent five fuckin’ years in fuckin’ Vietnam,” John says, kicking Jeremy challengingly in the foot, “and I don’t have to take this!”

Jeremy sits up and clutches the arms of his chair. “Kick me again!”

“Come on then!” says John, striking a fighting stance, dukes up.

“Kick me again! I’ll put you on your ass in half a second!”

“Come on then!”

Jerry heaves his mass to his feet and steps closer to John. “Come at me!” he hollers.

“I was in fuckin’ Vietnam!” John yells, backing away from the curly-haired behemoth inching towards him, finger in a deadly point.

Just when I think I’m about to see grown men come to blows for the first time in my life, nurses rush in and tell both men to go to their rooms.

John acquiesces immediately, and stalks off muttering about Vietnam.

Jeremy is not so quiet, and lands himself in a chair.

“I didn’t do nothing wrong! Why d’I gotta go to my room? He kicked me! He kicked me!

The nurses began to interrogate Dale and I.

“I asked him nice to move s’I could see the TV!”

At daycare this could have gone on all day. But whereas childcare workers can’t touch kids for fear of lawsuits, physical force is totally in-bounds here on the psych ward. Jerry knows this, and he can also hear Dale tattling from the puzzle table, so after a minute more of arguing he begrudgingly lifts himself and stomps to his room for his time-out.

 

* * *

 

To be sure, I am a man whose fastidiousness in regards to my appearance leans dangerously into absurdity’s turf. I have been known, for example, to shower, style my hair, and spend ten minutes choosing my clothes, on a Saturday during which I have no plans to leave my house.

So as I made my way to the bathroom after snack[16] on Monday night, it was not unusual for me to still be wearing my precious leather boots, even though I had only been reading in my room[17].

I knocked on the door of the half-bath on my wing. Hearing no response from inside, I entered and conducted business.

There were four bathrooms on the ward. Two were half-baths, only a toilet and sink, within a few steps of the lobby. Andrew, however, suggested I use the full bathrooms, equipped with two stalls, two urinals, and three sinks each, due to their less frequent use and consequent norms of tolerable cleanliness. It would have behooved me to heed this advice.

I saw the floor was wet when I entered, but unfortunately assumed it was water. Strolling down the hall to my room, however, I heard with each step a soft sound not unlike the peeling of old Velcro. My boots were sticking to the floor, dipped as they had been in the piss of a grown man.

Needless to say, I was careful to take off my boots before sprawling on the tabletop they call a bed and lying awake.

 

 * * *

 

“We’ve proved that time travel is possible,” says Andrew. “Here, I’ll show you, but I gotta get up.”

This group[18] began as a trivia game in which patients read each other riddles from a deck of playing cards. Here are the riddles I read (answers found below):

 

“Dare it so” is just a clue

for you to rearrange;

a giant belt in outer space?

That sounds a little strange[19].

 

In Greek it means

“A wandering star”;

the closest neighbor

is very far[20].

 

This fluid’s name

is what’s in question;

I start the process

of digestion[21].

 

There was something deeply sad about watching Dale practically choke reading a poorly-metered iambic quatrain that rhymes “bees” with “sneeze.” James was so bored he read the classifieds of the Wisconsin State Journal. Lawrence, a bespectacled gentleman who is friendly with distinguished academics across the country, and who without my knowledge secured my transfer from the bioengineering department of John Hopkins University in Baltimore to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I could finally realize my dream of becoming a cardiologist, and who (don’t tell anyone), is actually 003, an English spy working for the CIA, highly prized for his mental dexterity and imperviousness to torture, falls asleep after reading his first riddle[22].

After telling my third riddle, I skip off to the bathroom. When I return, the game has broken down into an exchange of trivia, which Andrew naturally dominates with information that I, thanks to reading Kratt’s Creatures books to introverted six-year-olds,

either already know[23] or know is incorrect[24].

I guess I should cut him some slack. He himself had said that he learned to read and write only a few years ago[25], and was honestly surprised that I, at age twenty-one, had never been to jail.

But as he steps now to a space on the wall that isn’t covered by a completed puzzle, preparing to explain how time travel has been proven possible, I fold my arms and put on my most cynical face – the one that reads: “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“A’ight, so here’s a star in the sky, kno’wh’I’m sayin’?” he says[26], pointing to a spot on the wall. “And it takes a million years for me to see the light from this star.”

We all stare. Particulars obviously incorrect, concept close enough. So what?

“But this star moves,” says Andrew, turning from the wall and pointing to the ceiling. “Throughout the night it moves across the sky.” He moves his hands in the air to illustrate the sliding of the heavens’ panorama.

Andrew has wounds up and down his arm of varying size and shape. The first night I arrived he told me that when he was caught with twenty grams of cocaine, four pounds of weed, and a cache of weapons whose names I recognized only vaguely from the dialogue of very serious TV cops, he was sentenced to life in prison[27]. His reaction: fuck it. He sliced his wrist with a razor. They took away his razor, so he stabbed his forearm with a ballpoint pen. When they took that away, he bit two dime-sized holes a few inches below his wrist. There is still a stitch in each hole. Unable to extract all his teeth, and by this point convinced that “Solo” would inevitably find a way to knock himself off, the State sent him here to the psych ward – presumably to teach us about time travel. Andrew seems to have called off snuffing it for now – his lawyer tells him they might beat the rap if the search which revealed the drugs and guns can be proven illegal.

“So how come I see it the same when the star is here,” he points back to the spot on the wall, “and the light takes a million years to get to me as I do when it’s here,” he points to another spot several inches from the first, “when it takes three million years to get to me?”

There is an explosion of groans, nos, and buts from the group[28]. James leaves under cover of the noise, shaking his head. Once again Andrew is able to shout over everyone.

“Did I just go over y’all’s heads?” he says, before launching into a repeat of his argument that proves, rather than nips in the bud, my suspicion the he stumbled upon this theory one morning while smoking a blunt on the way back from the corner store. While he had lived in Chicago, a trip to the corner store was second in Andrew’s morning routine[29]. Every day he bought a pack of Newport 100s, two ice cream sandwhiches[30], a strawberry milk Big Chug, and two blunt wraps. Andrew would roll a blunt in the store and then walk back home, smoking, eating, and drinking.[31]

After his third explanation of time travel I finally figure out exactly what was wrong with his theory.

“I’ll tell you where you’re wrong,” I say. “The stars appear to move because the earth rotates. So their apparent movement across the sky doesn’t affect the Earth’s distance from any one star.”

Andrew suddenly becomes professorial as hell. He gets a piece of paper and starts drawing a diagram.

“Here’s us,” he says, pointing to a little black dot. “And here’s the sun,” he points to another dot twice the size of the first and a half-inch away. “And this [third black dot two inches away] is the star. See how Earth moves away from it? So how come I see this star just as good from here as from here?”

I leave the room dazed at both the man’s perseverance and his stupidity. A patient in solitary confinement is beating his head against the wall – it echoes throughout the ward. This is Dan, whom I met my first night here. He, like me, is in the ward due to what he calls “circumstantial insanity,” and told me when I met him that if I want to talk, he’s a pretty level-headed guy. He is now in solitary confinement for punching out a light bulb in the bathroom and holding the socket to his neck. As his head’s thumps echo through the halls, I consider knocking on the door and asking to join him.[32]

 

* * *

 

And if you, reader, are anything like my classmates in workshop, you’re waiting for a moment of vulnerability from me, the narrator. For example, the rundown of my history of suicide attempts, eating disorders, and past and current drug and alcohol consumption that I gave to my psychiatrist. It might make for some interesting dialogue, or a chance to reveal my – the narrator’s – tumultuous past, you could be thinking.

Or possibly a scene in which I reveal a real emotional connection between myself and, say, my parents, would be an effective way to let the reader into my – the narrator’s – emotional world. Just think of the fireworks inherent in the revelation of the long-standing family dynamics[33] that could have in part contributed to my – the narrator’s – being jumped by a bunch of cops while naked and drunk in my – the narrator’s – apartment and carted to a detox center by a pretty blond one[34].

But a scene with my – the narrator’s – mom and dad might toe the line of cliché, or might come across as emotionally manipulative. Maybe something more low-key would suffice. Perhaps a vignette about the time Jack and I played chess, best two out of three, and I beat him the first time with a nasty little queen trick[35] before he handed my ass to me twice on a plastic dinner tray. I – the narrator – went back to school the next day, and I believe Jack went back to solitary confinement. Another possibility is me and Jack and Ryan playing cards[36] in a dark room[37].

This last example provides an excellent segue into my confession to the fact that none of these scenes will be included in this piece. This is because my – the narrator’s – time talking with my psychiatrist or visiting with my parents or playing chess or cards with Jack and/or Ryan was mine – the narrator’s. While the rest of my time at Mendota Mental Health Institute was spent remembering dialogue or constructing scenes in my head or jotting impressions in a notebook, I turned the writer off for some parts. And unfortunately for you – the reader – those parts turned out to be exactly what you wanted most to read about.

 

* * *

 

I apologize.

A psych ward is the only place on Earth where three sober people can all simultaneously sell themselves the idea that a game of Monopoly would be fun. This is because people in psych wards are either crazy or crazy-bored or both.

Ryan, Dale, and I have played maybe twelve turns. We can only find one die, which we roll twice. Dale and I have each amassed a respectable real-estate investment portfolio and are entering the game’s early wheel-and-deal stages. Ryan has landed on “Free Parking” twice, and is biding his time.

A cute young nurse with a slim waist and black curly hair approaches with a small paper cup of meds for Dale.

“What is it?” Dale croaks. “Since when do I take my medicine now?”

“I don’t know, I’m just following your sheet,” says the nurse. “Will you just take it?”

“Well why should I?” Dale wheezes, his throat visibly straining to speak under his gray goatee.

“Because you have to. Because it would make my life a lot easier.”

“I want,” says Dale, his tight growl rising in volume, “to be told when my medication changes! Why wasn’t I told?”

“Dale,” says a bald male nurse looking up from a newspaper in an armchair in the back of the room. “Would you please not raise your voice?” He spoke like a father desiring a quiet Saturday with no bickering from the kids.

Dale slammed his fist on the table, shaking the die and the chess pieces[38] on the board.

“Dale!” say both nurses.

“This is fucked up! This is fucked up!” Dale’s voice is cracking.

The male nurse stands. “Calm down Dale!”

The cute nurse says gently, “Take your meds.”

“Ah, fuck you,” says Dale, grabbing the cup of pills, emptying it into his mouth, and throwing it on the floor. He does the same with the cup of water. “Get me a grievance form” he said as the cute nurse picked up the cups and left the room.

The male nurse sits down and picks up his paper again. “We don’t have any,” he says as he looks for the spot where he left off.

“I want a grievance form!” Dale hits the table again.

“We don’t have any. Fill out your grievance on a plain piece of paper.”

Slam! “Don’t play this game with me! I know this game!”

The nurse hides behind his newspaper.

Dale is silent.

“It’s your turn Dale,” Ryan says.

Dale looks at the die for a second, then shoves his money to the middle of the board.

“I quit,” he says, getting up and leaving the day room.

 

* * *

 

Every morning after breakfast and an optional shower[39] there was a goal setting group in the main day room. Like all groups, it was optional, but about ten or so patients were usually present[40]. The patients’ goals were usually the same every day. Andrew promised every morning to be “less conceited.”[41] James, throwing his arms in the air in mock enthusiasm, committed daily to being “positive!” Jack once said he wanted to “increase conscious contact with God as I understand it.” He said “it” because “my god’s got some lady parts too.”[42]

 

* * *

 

Daytime Groups.

Saturday: Prose, Poetry, and Lyrics. I am absent due to visit from parents[43].

Sunday: Patients are asked to list what they believe to be the five greatest movies of all time. Next they are asked to imagine different endings for one of the movies. Finally patients imagine different endings for events in their own lives. Ryan said the only thing he would change is signing his stipulation agreement the last time he was on a psych ward. He regrets this more than he regrets his father’s death.

Monday morning: a deck of jumbo cards are passed around. Patients draw one and answer a corresponding question. Patients answer questions in clipped sentences, rushed by the nurses as if we patients care about even distribution of turns. The questions are listed below along with their card counterparts.

 

  • Ace: When and where do you feel most relaxed?
  • Two: What is a hope you have four your future?
  • Three: Where would you like to go on vacation?
  • Four: What is one of your long-term goals and what steps are you taking towards it?
  • Five: What medical breakthrough would you like to see during your lifetime?
  • Six: Name someone who has encouraged you sometime in your life.
  • Seven: Who is someone that is part of your support system?
  • Eight: If a book was written about your life, what would be its title?
  • Nine: Name one decision you made within the last two weeks which has had a positive effect on you.
  • Ten: What are the two most important things in your life?
  • Jack: Tell us something you are proud of.
  • Queen: If you could be any age what would you be and why?
  • King: What is one life improvement you would like to make?[44]
  • Joker: Give yourself a compliment.

 

Monday Afternoon: Bead-fusing – a slow repetitive activity which sooths the mind. I make a flower, but have to stop due to a visit from my parents. Others make lizards, bees, their initials, et cetera. This activity was popular among young girls at daycare.

Tuesday afternoon: gratitude journals. Patients learn to make daily entries of three things they are grateful for, and decorate their journals with patterned construction paper. I do not decorate mine, because my parents arrive to take me away mid-group.

 

 * * *

 

And if you, reader, are wondering[45] if you are wondering why it is that my arm was scratched with a steak-knife or the electrical socket in my bathroom was shorted, I will advise you to keep[46] that particular question to yourself. It doesn’t matter and I’m really tired of talking about it.

 

* * *

 

But this may give you a hint.

The first new patient since my arrival appeared on the ward Sunday night after dinner. I noticed him being given the grand tour on my way to take a phone call. He looked confused and scared, but also a bit like he always expected to be in a place like this sooner or later. I’d seen this face on countless kindergarteners, but on a guy my age it threw me.

A few hours later I was watching the Saints/Chargers game and playing solitaire. I had just played my best game ever – a smooth and fast three-card draw – when the new guy walked in. He looked younger than me. I asked how it was going. It seems unlikely that he said “good,” but he said something and sat down.

“What’s your name?” I said.

“Tristan,” he said. “What’s yours?”

I told him. I noticed I was making the same wide-eyed eye contact Ryan had made with me the first night. I hoped I wasn’t scaring Tristan, and tried to joke around a little bit.

“Are you sizing people up,” I said, “wondering how crazy they are?”

Tristan looked truly stung by the question. “No,” he said.

I felt bad for asking. This young man was probably in no mood for sarcasm. I tried to make him feel better. “I was,” I said.

Tristan said nothing.

“Wanna play a card game?” I asked, abandoning my game of solitaire and and shuffling.

He said sure.

“You know speed?”

He shook his head.

“Texas hold ‘em?”

“I don’t know many card games.”

I didn’t feel like playing teacher, and wished someone else was nearby who’d want to play. After a minute Tristan got up and walked out of the day room. He returned soon, and plopped in an armchair in the back.

I quit my game of solitaire and went to apologize.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to freak you out,” I said, plopping in the chair next to him.

“No,” he said, looking at his hands.

I sat down. “What are you here for?”

“I don’t know.”

This surprised me. “Well, where are you coming from? Where are you from?”

“I really don’t want to talk about it.”

“All right,” I said, so embarrassed I got up and looked at the bookshelf I’d perused a dozen times. I even took down a book – a history book titled The Making of a Prefident [sic] – to adequately fake genuine interest.

I don’t know what I did wrong in my exchanges with Tristan. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything. Maybe I asked the wrong questions, or in the wrong order. Maybe I should have done most of the talking, like Ryan did during our first conversation. Maybe he didn’t realize I was another patient; I was dressed in street clothes, not a sweat-suit. Or maybe I didn’t do anything wrong, and Tristan just didn’t want to talk [47].

FOOTNOTES

[1] This is a legitimate Powerball-lottery-type bingo machine they’ve got here on the psychiatric ward. The cards don’s even need chips. Instead they come equipped with see-through red slips of plastic that you slide over the number like a Star Wars scene-transition effect.

[2] The only way you can shave here is with an electric razor in the lobby.

[3] After three months on the psych ward: you will be able to correctly guess “missing link” in Pictionary based on a drawing of a puzzle with one piece missing. This is because you have already seen somebody else draw that picture for that card.

[4] Even with basic cable, pretty bleak.

[5] It was however, still blond, and thus invisible, and thus impossible to acquire sympathy through complaint about. My facial hair will forever look like the peach fuzz of a preteen.

[6] While driving from detox to the hospital, Officer Half-Beard searched Google maps for directions while driving. And he probably writes tickets for texting behind the wheel.

[7] Dinner: cold, bland, served on stackable trays. Presence of single-serving ice-cream is cause for excitement. No lactose-free milk available, so I must ask for Lactaid pill before every meal. It is a bit embarrassing due to its relation to bodily functions. Ryan and I trade food in secret – milk and vegetables for bread and butter.

[8] Weight played a factor, as did age and the presence of facial hair. Marked similarity in appearance to Benicio Del Toro in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas earned one inmate – excuse me, patient – named Jeremy a “FUCKING CRAZY!” rubber stamp on his forehead. His constant pulling at possibly imaginary stitches in the back of his head and his unwavering conviction that Brian Eno is a cocksucking faggot who raped and almost killed Jeremey’s girlfriend didn’t help.

[9] Considering.

[10] A conservative estimate. My room was “secure,” meaning it was video-monitored and constantly lit. When I found out, I wished I hadn’t been so sober, as a nice little buzz would have brought sleep faster.

[11] And feeling like quite the informed citizen doing so.

[12] Until August 2011, when it was suddenly required that employees reapply for their jobs each year, and I was told that I would not be rehired as a result of my general ineptitude as a childcare worker. My own opinion that the reapplication requirement was in reality an excuse for my boss to clean house of workers like me without actually using any form of the verb “to fire” is shared by all other workers who were not rehired for the summer of 2012.

[13] The tiger is the Byron School District’s mascot.

[14] In the summer it was referred to officially by the Byron Park District by the stupefyingly generic “Summer Camp.”

[15] Whose number ranged from ten to 50 during my years there.

[16] Referring to a snack as simply “snack” is normal when it is as regular as breakfast, lunch, or dinner – as it was at the daycare I worked at (ten o’clock a.m. and three o’clock p.m.) and the psych ward (eight o’clock p.m.). A favorite snack served in both places: Nilla Wafers…despite the lack of milk to go with them.

[17] During a visit on Saturday, which was uncomfortable and exhausting, and which mainly consisted of silence and gin rummy and overlong hugs in front of my new drug-dealing-or-just-out-of-prison friends,

my parents had brought me my homework. I had been falling behind in the reading of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children even before all this hullabaloo, and now had some real catching up to do. They also brought me a pair of jeans, some socks, and some v-neck t-shirts.

[18] group n. a scheduled period of time in which men on the ward gather to participate in a planned activity.

[19] Asteroid belt.

[20] Planet.

[21] Saliva.

[22] During my parents’ visit, Lawrence was being visited by his wife. Not ex-wife. My mom said the saddest parts were Lawrence’s brief moments of lucidity.

[23] Boa constrictors aren’t poisonous, and squeeze their prey to death instead.

[24] Komodo dragons aren’t twenty feet long. They generally max out around thirteen feet.

[25] He’s twenty-two.

[26] I am not exaggerating. For a while I was unsure whether to include Andrew in this piece because his dialect was next to impossible to pin down. One thing I absolutely remember, but couldn’t fit in any other way, was his insertion of the letter R into the word beautiful, as in “I’m brutally brutiful.”

[27] This did not quell Solo’s entrepreneurial spirit. He constantly stalked around the ward waiting for some contact to call him with an update of some kind. While I called my parents to tell them where I was, he incessantly badgered me to ask them to text his guy on the outside. I did. They texted “Solo says to call” to God knows who, and only received on text back: “Who is this?” I still half expect them to call with news of a mysterious rusty Acura parked across the road, watching.

[28] Here used in the more traditional sense.

[29] First was a rinse of Listerine and a shit ton of gum.

[30] The kind with the “bun” made out of cookies.

[31] He told me all this on the patio, where after a few days patients were allowed to spend a half-hour outside. On the patio was a gazebo, a garden with tomatoes and jalapeños and habaneros, picnic tables, and an 8’ basketball hoop. Naturally, the basketball was flat.

[32] Later, scribbling this scene in my notebook, I thought Andrew might have been trying to explain a layman’s version of the theory of relativity. If so, I don’t think he understood what was coming out of his mouth any more than the rest of us did. I don’t think it’s often he does know what’s coming out of his mouth.

[33] Which could maybe be foreshadowed in the dialogue with the psychiatrist.

[34] Who, it is discovered en route, was the same cop who found me – the narrator – passed out on the corner of Water and Main the night several months prior during which my – the narrator’s – landlord gave me – the narrator – CPR, and whom I decided halfway between Platteville and Madison it would be wholly inappropriate to ask out for a drink sometime.

[35] The only ace in the sleeve of my chess game, if you’ll forgive the clunky metaphor.

[36] I don’t remember what game.

[37] I don’t remember why it was dark.

[38] Used in lieu of the normal metal pieces, which could of course be used to kill oneself.

[39] There were two shower rooms, which could only be accessed by permission of a nurse. The state of Wisconsin courteously provided each patient with a Tupperware of toiletries which included: one (1) bar soap, one (1) stick deodorant that worked like a ballpoint pen and pinched my armpit hairs every time, one (1) tube Greenco fresh mint tartar control fluoride toothpaste, one (1) toothbrush with bristles that hurt my gums, one (1) cheap plastic comb. After my release I used the soap when I showered in the gym locker room. I keep the comb in my back pocket, greaser style, at all times.

[40] Mostly because they were in the day room already anyway and didn’t feel like leaving.

[41] A challenge for a man who, on the outside, will only wear a shirt once before throwing it away. He spends a lot of money on white cotton undershirts.

[42] Jack kicked my ass in chess my last night on the ward. Once he walked into the bathroom while I was picking a zit and called me Rico Suave. I liked him.

[43] Another reason for my half-heartedness regarding their visit.

[44] Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

[45] As were the cops who took me from my apartment to detox, my hip psychiatrist, my parents, and both counselor’s I’ve seen since my release.

[46] As did the patients at the Mendota Mental Health Institute.

[47] But then why did he sit down when I asked how he was doing? Why would he agree to a card game if he wanted to be left alone? What could I have said or done to make him feel more comfortable? What did I…?

 

 

BIO

Jacob Reecher writerJacob Reecher graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville in 2013. This is his first non-fiction publication, although his fiction has appeared in Driftless Review. He currently lives in Byron, Illinois, and is editing his first novel.

 

 

 

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