Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Learning From the Existentialists

I've been listening to a lecture series on existentialism. The focus is on philosophers Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre. These are some heavy dudes. The lecturer points out all the many ways they disagree and also the common philosophical thread that runs through their work:  the way to find true freedom in this life is by taking total responsibility for one's choices and one's responses to the events of life. This is called living an authentic life. An authentic life has passion and commitment. Most people live much of their lives in a reactionary mode. Almost everyone has brief moments of clarity, but the life of the ordinary person is generally unreflective in nature. The existentialists encourage us to live our lives in the present and make our decisions through reflective choice.
In conformity, one does the right thing because that is what's expected by others. Non- conformity is the other side of the coin. The rebellion of youth is an example of this. Both are reactionary ways of existing. Following the existential philosophy one may conform or rebel, but the choices are made reflectively and in this way one’s life becomes more “authentic”. Sartre found authenticity in the French underground. Rebelling against the Nazis gave him meaning and purpose that transcended his individual needs and wants. Viktor Frankl found it when he was a prisoner in a concentration camp. Helping the other prisoners gave him the meaning he needed to survive. The existentialists tell us that finding meaning in life leads to true freedom.
When I first attended college at Florissant Valley Community College in North St. Louis County, it was1965 and I guess I wasn't ready. I flunked out. My concerned parents sent me to a counselor, who advised me to go into the military. He told me “Not everyone is cut out for college.” But at some point during my Army experience, I decided I wanted an education. My heroes were writers. Not just writers, but writers and adventurers like Hemingway, Jack London and Jack Kerouac. Both Jacks were in the Merchant Marines for a while. When I was a soldier on my way to Vietnam aboard a Merchant Marine troopship, I enviously watched the sailors as they went about their daily chores. They worked hard and had purpose throughout their day, unlike us soldiers, the cargo, who had absolutely nothing to do. We sat or wandered around the ship with too much time to think about where we were headed. I imagined myself as one of those seaman, after a hard day's work, lying on my bunk in the evening, making entries in my journal for a novel I would someday write.
In Kerouac's novel On The Road, he describes living and working with migrant workers. He describes this as a deeply satisfying time in his life, doing exhausting work in the fields all day and then falling into bed at night tired but happy. The long tedious hours of back breaking work forced him to engage fully in life. For Hemingway it was imminent death that forced his characters into this open, honest and vital way of living.
Some of the existentialists spend too much time raging against normalcy. Reacting in a negative way to the bland, unaware, mundane, un-passionate existence of others is just another reactionary mode. Without compassion for the human condition, we miss the mark. When we truly face our own inevitable death, when we truly face our ultimate aloneness in the world, when we become quiet and genuinely reflective, we discover a deep connection with and compassion for all life. The peace and security people yearn for can only be found by letting go of striving for it. Totally accepting oneself in whatever situation one is in is the way to true freedom. The Buddhists' call it non-attachment or the middle way. Let go of all clinging and be totally present.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Pick of the Litter

I got first pick of the litter. Cheska was Suzanne's dog, the mother, and the father was a dog named Red. Both dogs were Springer Spaniels, although Red was so big we suspected he might not be pure-bred. Cheska was medium to small size, had reddish brown(liver) on her back with a white underbelly and white on her legs and muzzle. She could be dependent and whiny, whereas Red was strong, independent and had a regal appearance. Red's body was white with a smattering of reddish spots. Most of the color was on his head. He was owned by Suzanne's former boyfriend.
Suzanne and I lived together for a time in the early '70s, when one could easily drift in and out of relationships. Ours wasn't meant to last, but we shared a deep love of dogs as well as love and respect for each other. She was still living in Eugene in the house we bought together, but I had moved to Seattle and was eking out a living as a fry cook during the day and cab driver at night. I had been dog-less since my beagle, Blossom, was run over by a car driven by a young man going way too fast on a country road. I wasn't sure I wanted another one.
But getting pick of the litter was quite an honor and I was secretly pleased that Red's master was getting second choice. I can't remember how many puppies were in the litter, but a lot, maybe 8 to 10. Suzanne called me when they were old enough to adopt. There is absolutely nothing cuter than a bunch of Springer puppies. I couldn't resist and took my time watching them before making my decision.
Suzanne let me know which puppy the ex-boyfriend wanted. It was the biggest male with the droopiest face. He was lethargic, spending most of his time sitting and watching the other puppies play. There was something appealing about his mellow nature and for a while I thought he was the one I wanted. It may have also had something to do with taking the dog that Suzanne's irresponsible, cavalier yet ruggedly handsome ex wanted. But as I continued watching the puppies, I kept noticing one medium sized male, always on the move. Some of the puppies fought a lot, some slept most of the time and some whined until mom returned to feed them. But this little male went around bumping the other dogs with his nose until he got one of them to play with him. He didn't get angry or give up. He would bump a puppy, back up and then furiously wag his cropped tail. After two or three times of this, without response, he would move on to the next one.
When I touched his back, he looked up at me and for a brief moment I could tell he thought maybe I'd play with him. But when he realized I was just sitting there watching like that fat puppy in the corner, he again turned his attention to the other dogs.
I named him Murray after the Jason Robards character in the movie A Thousand Clowns. Murray was a writer for a children's television show. But he grows to hate the shows host and the conformity of it, so he quits. Murray realized that most people go through their lives reacting and conforming to others and to the “system” and lose the basic childlike joy of living. His nephew Nick lives with him and Murray wants him to live life with gusto and to stand up to the hypocrisy and phoniness of others. Throughout the movie Murray tries to act as an example for his nephew. In one scene he goes out into the street very early in the morning, looks up at the New York apartment buildings and begins yelling at them as if he were a camp counselor. “Campers, volleyball will be held out on the main lawn at 10 am sharp”.
I lived with Murray the Springer for over 15 years. We ran together, hiked together, lived in a variety of houses and towns. He endured my ups and downs with girlfriends and marriages. He loved and played with my son and two stepsons. He tolerated our other pets as they came and went. Throughout it all, I could count on him to bump me on the leg each morning wag his stump of a tail, back off and look at me straight in the eye as if to say, Isn't it great to be alive. What fun activities are we going to do today? Murray 001
Murray had a stroke in 1990. His left side stopped working. When I took him to the Vet to be put down, we took a few minutes to sit outside the office by the side of a small stream. He knew something was wrong, but when he heard the birds chirping in the trees, his floppy ears perked up and he looked at me. Again I saw that little puppy. What do you say we go chase after those birds? I'm reminded of the Jerry Jeff Walker song Mr. Bogangles. “His dog up and died... after 20 years he still grieves.” It's been over 20 years since Murray died and I haven't gotten another dog and probably won't.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Thoughts on Christian Science

I was raised in Christian Science. It was a good religion for a kid. The message was very positive. In fact in Sunday School we were taught that God is only positive. There are 7 specific synonyms for God; Life, Truth, Love, Mind, Soul, Spirit and Principle. I learned that we are all part of God or more precisely, individual expressions or reflections of God. We learned that the material world is an illusion and that we are really spiritual beings. Sin was defined as our belief in the material world. The degree to which we believe in and are attached to matter, is the degree to which we suffer. Everything in the material world passes away, so the task of a Christian Scientist is to develop a Spiritual sense, which can be defined as a deeper understanding of our true relationship with the Divine.
I preferred the Christian Science message over the one at my previous Sunday School, which was Presbyterian. There was a scary side to their message. I felt I had to watch what I did or else I would be punished. Once I asked the Sunday school teacher if animals went to Heaven, he told me, no they didn't, only people. He probably didn't speak for all Presbyterians, but at the time I decided I didn't want to go to heaven, I wanted to go where ever my dog went. When I asked the same question of the Christian Science lady, she told me that all living things are part of God and that includes my dog. Also that Heaven was not a far off place, but was always present and could be experienced in this life. We didn't need to wait until we died. The way to experience heaven, I was told, was to quiet down, “be still and know that I am God”.
When I got older and started attended Christian Science church services, I had a lot of trouble “being still” and paying attention. The church service was excruciatingly boring to me. There are no preachers in Christian Science, just two readers. One reads passages from the Bible and one from Mary Baker Eddy's book Science and Health. There is absolutely nothing extemporaneous about the service, robots could do it.
When Katie and I lived in Rochester, New York we attended a Christian Science church a few times. It was a huge beautiful Cathedral, but there were only 7-10 people attending the services. We found that to be true in other areas as well. In Port Angeles, Washington, during the 5 years we lived there, the local Christian Science Church first downgraded to a Society and then went out of business altogether. Christian Science seems to be a rapidly declining religion. I Speculate that there are two main reasons for the decline. One is the rigidity of the way the religion was set up by Mrs. Eddy and the other is their stand on not receiving medical help for physical problems.
The First Reader at one of the CS churches we attended had a huge goiter on his neck. I'm sure he was praying like crazy for it to go away, and probably felt guilty that it wasn't. I know that guilt all to well. I wanted to tell the guy, just have a doctor take that thing off your neck and get on with your life. I suffered from migraine headaches for years. I called a Christian Science practitioner to pray for me. She asked me a lot of questions and one of them was, Are you receiving any medical help for them? I told her I took a migraine pill when I felt one coming on. This allowed me to go to work and function, as opposed to lying in a dark room all day. This particular woman was a renowned Christian Science teacher and writer and she told me she couldn't help me as long as I continued to take the medication. Her response turned me off and I started to argue with her over the phone until she told me she had to go. I kept taking the medication and stopped reading Christian Science.
Mrs Eddy was not the first person to use the term Christian Science and it wasn't a brand new philosophy that she discovered. She learned the basics from a spiritual healer named Phineas P. Quimby. After being healed by him, she hung on to his manuscripts and for a time considered herself his “disciple”. On her own she worked out the details of this new theology and spiritual healing in conjunction with Biblical Scriptures and much of it I'm sure came to her through revelation. It is fair to say she greatly advanced this theology. But it always bothered me that she took all the credit for everything she wrote and taught even though there are passages lifted directly from Quimby's manuscripts. And many other spiritual writers of the day had published works developing the same ideas. But it's hard to find mention of Mr. Quimby or any of the other spiritual writers and healers of the time in any of the official Christian Science literature. It's like they never existed. In fact it's taught in the church that any other person's interpretation of Christian Science or spiritual healing is tainted by “carnal” or “mortal mind”. So Christian Scientists give her all the credit for all the teachings. To be a loyal Christian Scientist you need to accept that all other systems of spiritual healing are wrong and only her system is the “Truth”. So like so many religions, you either buy into it entirely or you don't.
In the late 1800's, Emma Curtis Hopkins was at one time Mrs. Eddy's star student. She rose to the top of the organization and became editor of the Christian Science Journal. She then suddenly disappears from the Christian Science literature and is never to be found again. Ms. Hopkins saw similarities in Christian Science philosophy and Eastern Philosophy, particularly Hinduism. Also she realized that the evolution of the Christian Science philosophy cannot be contained within one organization. Revelation and Truth do not belong to any one individual. She began to talk about this publicly and Mrs. Eddy booted her out of Christian Science. Ms. Hopkins went on to teach classes which spawned the New Thought movement including Unity, Religious Science and Divine Science.
It's obvious that Ms. Hopkins learned much from Mrs. Eddy. The teachings are almost identical. Emma Hopkins sited the basic difference between her beliefs and Mrs. Eddy's with the following distinction; Mrs. Eddy states, there is no life, truth, intelligence nor substance in matter. Ms. Hopkins makes the subtle, but profound distinction that, there is no absence of life, truth, intelligence nor substance in matter.
Since childhood I've had a “love/hate” relationship with Christian Science. I suppose it's not unlike the feelings of Catholics, Jews and other Protestants concerning the religion they were raised in. Sometimes I am fiercely attracted to the religion and want to join up and believe everything it has to teach and at other times I reject it vehemently and see inconsistencies and hypocrisies within it. In the end I strive to remain true to an honesty of Being.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Bob Kuban and the In-Men, Our Local Band

Wherever you grew up there was probably a local musician or band that made it big. The St. Louis area spawned many famous musicians, most notably Chuck Berry, Ike & Tina Turner and more recently Michael McDonald, who graduated from my high school, McClure High, in Florissant, Mo. I had already graduated before he began high school so I'm sorry to say I didn't know him. In North St. Louis in the mid '60s the local band that made the big-time was Bob Kuban and the In-Men. If you've heard of them, you are either familiar with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's one hit wonder list or you’re from the St. Louis area or you have an incredible amount of rock & roll trivia rambling around in your brain. I'm guilty of all three.

Bob Kuban was the drummer and band leader of the In-Men. On Friday nights during the summer, his band would play at Jackson Park, a relatively small park in Berkeley, a north St. Louis suburb. Jackson Park hosted a variety of local bands during the hot St. Louis summer nights. In the summers of 1964 and 1965, my friends and I would go back and forth between Jackson Park and the local YMCA where there was usually a band playing as well. But when Bob Kuban was playing at Jackson Park, we tried not to miss it. He had a first rate band.

The Beatles and the British bands were taking over America at that time and they were the major influence on popular music. Bob Kuban's band was not your typical band of the era. It had more more in common with the earlier rhythm and blues bands of Ike Turner, Wilson Picket and James Brown. In an interview Bob Kuban states that Ike Turner was a big influence on him and his formation of the band. As a footnote to my story, in 1951 before Tina joined him, Ike Turner's band was called The Kings of Rhythm. They recorded a song called Rocket 88 which some believe was the very first rock & roll song. How's that for local boy making history?

Bob Kuban had an eight piece band with horns, drums and keyboard, which was played by a guy from my neighborhood, Greg Hoeltzel. The lead singer was Walter Scott, who had a great voice for this style of music. During those two summers we listened to our local band, knowing they were a cut above the other local groups, playing in their unique St. Louis style. This was several years before The Chicago Transit Authority(Chicago) and Blood Sweat and Tears would bring the big band sound back to popular music. In 1966 Bob Kuban and the In-Men hit it big with The Cheater. The song was all over the radio for months. That year we watched our local guys on national TV, but their run was short lived. They had only a few other songs that got national play, Teaser and a cover of a Beatles song Drive My Car. I also remember hearing a song called Jerkin' Time and the Bat Man Theme on the radio as well, but they may have just been popular locally.

Walter Scott left the band shortly after The Cheater's popularity to pursue a solo career. He never had another hit song, but in his repetoire sang (Look out for) The Cheater over and over again in a variety of performance venues. In 1983 when Bob Kuban was trying to get the original band back together for a reunion concert, he discovered that Walter Scott was missing. Scott was found 4 years later floating face down in a cistern with his ankles, knees and wrists bound. He had been shot through the heart from the back. In one of life's ironic turns, it was discovered that his murderer were his “cheater” wife and her "cheater" boyfriend. There was a Forensic Files TV show about it as well as a book written titled The Cheaters: The Walter Scott Murder by Scottie Piesmeyer.

Bob Kuban still has a band that plays in the St. Louis area. I read that recently they played a summer evening gig at Jackson Park and invited all the fans to come out for old time's sake. I would have liked to have been there. That's the problem with being a nomadic type and having moved away years ago. Not only have I lost touch with most of my old friends, I haven't been back to St. Louis since my friend Paul and I visited eight years ago. But I still have memories of those hot summer evenings in the '60s at Jackson Park listening to our local band that finally made the big-time.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Wes Montgomery and a Giant Doobie

Recently Arizona passed a medical marijuana law. It's still a very contentious topic, each side vehemently arguing against the other. Back in the ’60s and ‘70s I would have predicted the complete legalization by now. At this stage of my life I have mixed emotions about it though. I have some very fond memories from when I was in college at the University of Oregon in the early ’70s that include pot smoking. It seemed so innocent back then. Friends would gather. We'd be having a few beers, listening to music and someone would roll a joint and pass it around. Then we'd all become quiet, listening intently to the music until at some point something would strike one of us as funny and we'd begin to laugh hysterically. The laughing and giggling wouldn't stop until we realized we had a terrible case of the munchies and then we'd raid the frig.
One of the arguments used against legalization is that it is a gateway to other drugs. I think there is some validity to this argument, but for me it was a gateway to mystical experiences. I was influenced by authors like Aldous Huxley, John Lilly, Carlos Castenada, Joseph Chilton Pierce and Ram Dass. I was never tempted to drop acid even though it was the holy grail of psychedelic drugs. As a war veteran I was extremely afraid of getting stuck in a bad trip. I felt I could control marijuana. I knew just how much to smoke to get into a comfortable heightened state of perception. It helped me to understand that peace is in the present moment. It also taught me to let go of past and future, which is the only true freedom. But of course when the drug effect wore off, I was flung back into my neurotic self, feeling lethargic and sometimes with a bad cough and a headache.
I never heard of marijuana until 1967. I was on leave from Army training and getting ready to ship out to Vietnam. I went to a friend’s house to visit him and his girlfriend. They put on some strange music (Vanilla Fudge) and said it sounded even better when you're high. I thought they meant high on alcohol and I said “Well then let’s have a few beers.” His girlfriend looked at me like I was nuts and said, “Don't you know that stuff will kill you.” They told me marijuana was a much safer drug than alcohol and it made you peaceful instead of violent. They asked me if I'd like to try some, but I declined. They weren't too interested in hanging with me anymore after that, so I left.
The first time I smoked a joint was in Vietnam. The doobies over there were almost cigar- sized. You could purchase a bunch of them already rolled and neatly placed in a baggy for about five bucks. One evening in base camp, my black friend Mitch invited me over to his hooch to listen to music. Mitch was from Chicago. He wasn't trained in intelligence like the rest of us, but he was a grunt, an infantryman, assigned to our detachment as an aid to the First Sergeant. Our First Sergeant was an old man, probably in his 40s. He fought in World War II in the German Army. We used to refer to him as the First Nazi, behind his back of course. He could barely conceal his prejudicial thinking. How Mitch got assigned to him I'll never know, Karma I guess. Mitch had an attitude. He was a draftee and didn't care for Army life. He wore his helmet at a rebellious angle and when he wasn't wearing a helmet, he would stick his large comb in his barely perceptible afro hair-do. The First Sergeant could get pissed off just looking at him.
Mitch called me “Little Bro”. He said I was the only white guy he ever called that. I don't know if I believed him, but I liked it. We both loved Motown music. On the top of our favorite musicians list were Marvin Gaye and The Temptations. Smokey Robinson was like a God and then there was Mitch's local Chicago band The Impressions led by “my man” Curtis Mayfield. That night in his hooch,  Mitch said he had some music he wanted to turn me on to. It was the smooth jazz electric guitar of “his man”, Wes Montgomery. While we were listening to Wes, he lit up one of those honking doobies, took a hit and passed it to me. I had already adopted the Vietnam “what the fuck” attitude and took a big hit. He told me to hold it in, which I tried to do until it exploded from me in a fit of uncontrollable coughing. After he and the rest of the guys in the hooch stopped laughing, Mitch coached me in how to inhale and avoid this happening again.
I'd like to say we then kicked back and enjoyed the smooth jazz together, but I became hyper aware of the explosions and small arms fire in the background. I thought I had become used to it. But it seemed louder and closer. I couldn't sit still anymore and got up to leave. I felt I needed to get my rifle, flak jacket and helmet from my hooch and then dive into a bunker. I was aware that my heart was beating hard and fast. Mitch stopped me and said I was just feeling the effects of the pot, but I wasn't convinced. He finally sent someone over to get my friend Rob. Rob was college educated and older than the rest of us. He was 22. Rob took me outside and talked to me until I finally calmed down.
Mitch and I had plenty of opportunities to practice the art of smoking Ganga and I became quite efficient at it. One day Mitch was gone. No one could tell me where he went. I assume he really pissed off the First Nazi and got sent out to an infantry platoon. I don't know whether he survived the war or not, but I hope he did. No one else ever called me “Little Bro”.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Buying a New Car

Katie and I just went through the new car buying experience and came out the other side with a nice car, but we’re hoping not to have to go through that agonizing process again for a long time. We’d been talking about buying a car for a while now. Our Ford Focus was still running strong, but had almost 140,000 miles on it. We researched various cars and decided we wanted a small hatchback that was dependable, safe and got good gas mileage.
Last Saturday I went up to Tucson on my motorcycle to pick up a part I’d ordered. On the way home I passed by a Toyota dealer and decided to stop and see if they had any cars we’d be interested in. I was hoping to just look around a bit without being bothered, yeah right. A salesman swooped in on me before I took two steps on the lot. He was a friendly guy, of course. He asked me what I was looking for and I told him. He showed me a variety of used cars, but they were either too expensive, too old, too big or too something.
This went on for some time. We drove around a very large block in heavy traffic in several different cars, but nothing caught my fancy. Then he remembered a car they had just gotten in. He left me for a while and came back in an almost new Toyota Yaris. It was a strange color, appearing to be an off shade of purple. I got in and the salesman drove it out into the traffic, down the street until reaching a big deserted parking lot where he pulled in. He stopped the car and told me to try it out on some tight turns. I whipped the little car around the lot, swerving one way, then the other. I was having fun. It was like driving a large go-cart. It handled well, had good power and was comfortable.
I repeatedly told the salesman that I couldn’t commit to buying a car unless my wife liked it too. He said, “Not a problem, take the car home, keep it for the rest of the weekend and bring it back on Monday. If your wife doesn’t like it, just turn it in and walk away.” I was getting tired and had the thought’ this will be fun to drive around for a couple days, so I agreed. Then another fleeting thought, she’s never going to gofor this color.
But it wasn’t as simple as just driving the car home. My buddy the salesman added, “First I need you to fill out some papers before you go.” OK, I understand that they can’t just let me drive away in this almost new car. But I didn’t realize I had to go through the entire paperwork process as if I were actually buying it. What had I gotten myself into? First I waited for the financial guy to be able to see me, then they ran a credit check and I waited for the results, then I signed papers until my hand started to cramp. I kept asking the financial guy, “Are you sure I’m not actually buying this car?” and he kept reassuring me, “No, don’t worry, this is just a formality.” I made sure there was a paper saying that if my wife doesn’t approve of the car, the deal is off. The process took several hours and the whole time I was thinking, what in the hell am I doing? She’s not going to like the color.

During a break in the paperwork action and on my way to the bathroom for the umpteenth time, because the salesman kept showing up with another free bottle of water and I kept drinking them, I stopped off to take quick look at the car. The sun was now setting and when I stepped out the front door of the dealership, there was the little Toyota, a deep brown color, the shade of root beer. Silly me, my mind must have tricked me into thinking it was a putrid purple color. I think she’ll like it after all.


I went back in for the last round of paperwork signing and then finally was free to leave. We stashed my motorcycle in the back of the dealership and I took off for Green Valley in the root beer colored Toyota. Even though it was slightly “pre-owned”, it still had that new car smell. When I got home it was pitch dark. After my long winded answer to the question “You did what?” Katie decided to wait and look at the car in the morning. In the morning light we walked out to the parking lot and there it stood. But it wasn’t root beer colored anymore and wasn’t purple either, but of sort of a sickening shade of mauve. Katie’s first comment was “It looks like the color of a corpse.” We walked around it until I found an angle where it looked root beer colored again, but any slight movement to the right or left turned it into a rolling cadaver. “And besides”, she pointed out, “ it’s a two door and we decided we need a four door.”
How had I gotten sucked into bringing home this ugly colored little car? Why did I allow myself to go through all the waiting and paperwork hassle? If I had thought about it, I clearly would have realized this was not the car we wanted. These questions may never be answered. My conclusion is, I cannot be trusted to go into a car dealership on my own. Katie refused to go back with me to return the car. The unspoken words were you got yourself into this mess and you can get yourself out of it. I thought I’d learned my lesson.
When I took the car back on Monday, the salesman was surprised that it had been rejected. I told him we liked the car, but it was the wrong color and we needed 4 doors. He didn’t miss a beat, “Wait here just a minute, I think I have something you’ll really like.” and he took off before you could say, “Oh shit here we go again.” He showed up minutes later in a white Toyota Corolla. It was a lot more money than we wanted to spend and neither of us wanted a white car. But I drove it and liked the feel of it, it had good power, handled really well and had a huge trunk with fold down back seats. Again, I was ready to consider another car that wasn’t the right one. I told the salesman I was not going through all the rigmarole I went through the other day and that I needed to get my motorcycle out of the back and go home. He said, “No problem, I’ll follow you down to Green Valley and we can show the car to your wife.” In a brief moment of sanity I said, “I’d better call her first.” which I did. I told her all about the car and she listened very patiently and then said in a calm and authoritative voice, “Get on you motorcycle and come home now, without the salesman.” So I did.

Even though I told the salesman we’d be back the next day, we didn’t go back, Instead we went to a different dealership and found a car that fits all our criteria. It’s an arctic blue Nissan Versa and it continues to look Arctic Blue no matter what angle you happen to be examining it from. Katie mercifully went through the paperwork process while I zoned out. I couldn’t face doing it again. We are very happy with our new car.

I had spent a lot of time with that Toyota guy. I knew where he was from and why he and his wife moved to Arizona. I knew that he had a problem with his lower back and that he’s going to have it operated on soon. He hopes to buy another motorcycle, a Honda 1300. He was in the Navy, and just missed going to Vietnam. Well he called me the other night “How are you doing? How’s your wife? Did you get home alright the other night on your bike?” Have you been car shopping again?” “Yes,” I told him, “We bought a Nissan and I started to tell him why and that I appreciated all of his efforts to find me a car, but right in the middle of my sentence he said, “OK then.” and hung up. So much for our bonding experience the other day.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The World Needs Bucky More Than Ever

I’m a supporter of the voluntary simplicity movement. I’m most enthusiastic about it between the times when I’m hungering to buy something new. Right now I’m a strong supporter. I rode my new motorcycle over to my favorite coffee shop and I’m sitting here writing this blog on my new nifty netbook. ‭ ‬I am pleased to see the voluntary simplicity concept is catching on with many young people. Only in a wealthy country like ours can there be a movement like this. It’s probably not real popular across the border in Mexico or in other third world countries. You can’t give up what you never had or have no hope of getting.
‭ Katie and I have been mindful of living lighter on the earth since the 70s. Since that time we have avidly recycled, mostly driven small fuel efficient cars, flushed our toilet sparingly and gave away or sold possessions we no longer used. The attitude of living more simply allowed us to retire earlier than most people and to retire without a fear of being poor. We now live in a 600 square foot condo, have just one small storage area on our back porch and 3 small closets. It seems we still have plenty of stuff. I can barely remember the many things we got rid of. Realistically looking at our attempts to conserve energy, we still consume way more than most people on the earth. And even if we became super good at conserving and recycling, would it make a difference in the grand scheme of things? ‬Looking to the future,‭ ‬it seems obvious that the entire world can’t participate in the making, buying and throwing away of things at the rate we've been doing it in America over the past sixty or so years.‭ The earth cannot sustain such wasteful activity on that grand of scale. Yet our consumer way of life is spreading around the globe like wildfire. In China, India, South America, and everywhere, people are becoming aware of all the goodies and want them, and you can’t blame them, some of these goodies are pretty cool. The third world is not going to choose voluntary simplicity.
‭ Sometime in the 1970s when I was in college at the University of Oregon, I went to a lecture by Buckminster Fuller. He was an architect, inventor, environmentalist and all around genius type of guy. He invented many things, but is most known for his invention of the geodesic dome. He also coined many terms, one being ephemeralization, which basically means doing more with less. At the time of the lecture, he was in his 80s. Sitting there in the audience listening to him speak, I noticed the large hearing aides behind each ear attached to thick black glasses with coke bottle lenses. I had to really concentrate to follow what he was saying. He talked in giant circles. I thought this old guy was just rambling on, but what I initially judged as a meandering, disjointed monologue, all of a sudden came together in brilliant clarity.
‭ He emphasized that we cannot continue our current way of living on the earth and hope to survive.
‭“‬If humanity does not opt for integrity we are through completely. It is absolutely touch and go. Each one of us could make the difference.” “Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we've been ignorant of their value.” “We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.” “We are not going to be able to operate our Spaceship Earth successfully nor for much longer unless we see it as a whole spaceship and our fate as common. It has to be everybody or nobody.”
Bucky was a renaissance man. I remember him saying that the fall of western civilization will be because of over-specialization. I’ve been thinking about that statement off and on all these years and see examples of it everywhere. In the medical field you have to go to a special doctor for your feet, your heart, your eyes, your nose and throat, your allergies, your diabetes etc. And if you’ve ever had a house built, the list of people that need to be involved is almost endless. We are losing the big picture by each one of us focusing only on our narrow interests or specialties. He believed that by using our intelligence we could design systems that work for everyone and are in harmony with the environment. Not only could we feed the entire world, but he confidently said we could raise everyone’s standard of living higher than what we currently have in the US.
Bucky’s ideas were popular in the sixties and for a while a whole generation of young people cultivated a more holistic view of the earth and its inhabitants. We need Bucky’s ideas again today. He encouraged each one of us to do our part no matter how small. At his grave site there is a small concrete stone above his headstone that is inscribed with the words: “Call me Trim Tab”. The following quote explains this.
“Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Mary, the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there's a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab. It's a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it's going right by you, that it's left you altogether. But if you're doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, call me Trim Tab”.
—Buckminster Fuller
Each one of us can make a difference and getting serious about voluntary simplicity is a good place to start. Bucky said we can save the world with intelligent design and the help of modern technology. I’m hoping that means I can keep my new laptop. Oh yeah and our TV is getting really old.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Similarities Between Ricky and Frank

I’ve written quite a few blogs about music. Music was and continues to be an important part of my life. It speaks a language that goes into the senses, passes through the thinking, controlling brain and stirs up the deepest recesses of my psyche. It hits parts of me that I am not aware of, loving parts, hopeful parts, angry parts, sad and grieving parts and the list can go on. At times it even liberates me from all parts and there is no separation between the music and my self.
I grew up with music in the house. My mom loved classical music and played it loud when she did housework. In my head are many classical pieces. I couldn’t tell you who the composers are or the names of the pieces, but I can hum along with the music. My dad loved music as well and whistled a lot when he puttered around the house. He liked popular music and that’s the gene I got. I loved popular music even before rock & roll, but it’s when I first heard Elvis that I discovered my music.
The first musician I identified with was Ricky Nelson. I watched him grow up on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Rock & roll began in our culture with Elvis. His way of interpreting songs became the standard. The problem was no one did Elvis better than Elvis, but everybody tried. His movements, his look and his inflections were all copied by other rock and rollers. Every one agreed he was the “King of Rock & Roll”. Even though Ricky idolized Elvis, he didn’t try to imitate him. Ozzie set him up with a top notch band (his lead guitar player, James Burton, would later become Elvis’) and Ricky sang the songs without theatrics.  Like the old crooner, Frank Sinatra, Ricky showed restraint in his delivery and total appreciation of the music. I’ve always liked musicians who didn’t allow their egos to become greater than the music.
Frank was a musical force like Elvis, and a teen idol like Ricky, maybe the first teen idol. He chose his songs well and demonstrated an impeccable understanding and respect for the music and the musicians. He used his voice as one of the instruments of the band, even though it was the main instrument. Ricky had the same style. He didn’t put on airs, but sang the songs straight with feeling and as an integral part of the band. If you want to hear pure unadulterated ‘50s rockabilly rock & roll, listen to Ricky’s many hit songs.
My favorite music, evolving from that era, was Folk Rock, a genre that doesn’t seem to be a category anymore in the music stores. Folk Rock was born when Dylan went electric and Roger McGuinn fused the Beatles’ sound with Dylan lyrics. The Byrds, the Turtles, the Mamas and the Papas, and the Lovin’ Spoonful were some early Folk Rock groups. Folk Rock dominated popular music in the ‘60s and ‘70s.. Folk music was forever fused with Rock and individual artists like James Taylor, Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Brown were at the apex. The group that ruled the genre was Crosby, Stills and Nash and sometimes Young. In the mid ‘70s the baton was passed to the Eagles who, like the Byrds before them, fused in country music as well. In the late‘60s Ricky formed the Stone Canyon Band with Randy Meisner, who later joined the Eagles, and they helped pioneer the Country Rock sound.  
Every generation has its own music and the generation to follow usually hates it. I remember my mom telling me about seeing Frank Sinatra with my dad when they were young. She talked about it as if it were something really special. I was heavily into the Stones at the time and thought, “Who’d want to listen to that corny old fashioned music?” After mom died, I discovered a live Sinatra record in her collection. It was recorded in Las Vegas with Count Basie’s Orchestra and arranged by Quincy Jones. I put it away in my useless record collection. Sometime in the ‘90s my sister gave me a Frank Sinatra cassette tape for my birthday. It contained songs recorded with the Nelson Riddle orchestra during his comeback in the ‘50s. I must have been ready at that time, because I discovered great songs with impeccable musicianship. I bought CDs of the live Vegas  performance and the Nelson Riddle years and I now cherish these two recordings along with a Ricky Nelson greatest hits compilation. I love those two guys, they stood up there and sang ‘em straight.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Growing Up With Television

A unique characteristic of baby boomers is that we are the first generation to grow up with television. The history of the development of television goes back to the early 1900’s, but it wasn’t until broadcast networks offered regular programming in the late 40’s and early 50’s that televisions became available to the public. By 1955 estimates are that half of American households had a TV set. There were just a few channels in those days and the programs were in black and white.
It’s the 1950’s shows that I remember fondly. Our TV set was in the basement during much of that time. Part of our basement was converted into a family room with knotty pine walls on which my parents allowed me to hang my precious baseball pennants. There was a brown and beige linoleum floor with an area rug, a coffee table, couch and chair so that our family of four could watch television in the evening. I loved getting up early on Saturday mornings to watch what I considered my own personal shows. I don’t remember the exact lineup, but there were a lot of cowboy programs; The Lone Ranger, Fury, Sky King, Roy Rogers and Hop-a-long Cassidy.
Andy’s Gang was a strange show hosted by Andy Devine and sponsored by Buster Brown shoes. It had some bizarre characters which included a mischievous toy frog named Froggy the Gremlin. Andy would say “Plunk your magic twanger Froggy” which elicited a twanging sound, a puff of smoke and the appearance of a stiff little toy Frog with arms and legs sticking out to the side. Froggy greeted us by saying, “Hiya kids, hiya, hiya hiya”, in a low male voice. One of the funniest bits to my child’s mind was when Froggy confused the teacher by interrupting him in the middle of teaching us something scholarly and serious. The interruption was “And I put it on my head” after which the teacher absentmindedly repeated the phrase and placed whatever he was holding on his head. I’m certain kids across America were laughing with me.
The Howdy Doody Show was the first television program I remember totally getting into. It was our Sesame Street minus all that healthy educational stuff. It took place in Doodyville and even had a Mayor, Pheneous T. Bluster. The most important part of the show for me and what made it more personal was the Peanut Gallery, a bleacher filled with kids just like myself. Buffalo Bob, the host, opened the show by asking the Peanut Gallery, “Hey kids, what time is it?” and all the kids would yell, “It’s Howdy Doody time,” and break into the Howdy Doody song, which was to the tune of Ta ra ra Boom de ay, an old Vaudeville song. I can finally admit that I sang along with the other kids. Some of the other characters on the show were Clarabel, who didn’t talk until the very last show, but instead honked a horn on his belt or squirted someone with a seltzer bottle, Chief Thunderthud who created the not very PC greeting and later resurrected by Bart Simspson, Kowabonga, and Princess Summerfall Winterspring, who vanished as a real person and later reappeared on the show as a marionette, like Howdy(unbeknownst to us kids, the actress was killed in a car accident).
The Peanut Gallery concept caught on across America. In the St. Louis area where I grew up, there were several shows that had live kid participation. One was Ernie Heldman’s Parade of Magic. My friend Paul and I got a chance to be on the show with our cub scout troop. TV was such a big part of our lives that to actually appear on it was a huge deal. I remember feeling nervous that Ernie would call on me to come up and help him with a magic trick, but he some chose other kids and I was relieved. Moments before the cameras rolled, our friend Craig spilled coke all over Paul and so Paul was pulled out of the gallery and didn’t get on the show. Later when it was on television we watched it and as the camera panned the rows of kids, I spotted myself. For a few brief seconds I felt the fleeting glory of fame. Then the show was over and my fame was lost in history. Very few of my friends saw that particular show and if one did, he or she didn’t remember seeing me on it.
A very popular show in the St. Louis area was Texas Bruce and the Wrangler Club. The kids were the Wranglers. Texas Bruce and his horse Trusty were popular figures around St. Louis. They appeared at many events. During the show, Texas Bruce allowed the boys and girls to individually say hi to family and friends. Most of the kids said hi to there moms and dads. On one show, a boy said “Hi mom, hi dad,” and then stuck up the middle finger of his right hand, thrust it toward the camera and added, “And this for you Herby.” The kid became legendary. Everyone was talking about him. Who was he? And who was Herby? What did Herby do to him to deserve this? I imagined Herby taking his revenge out on the kid and expected to see headlines in the newspaper, “One of Texas Bruce’s Wranglers murdered in his sleep.” But we never found out anything about the kid or Herby. In fact Texas Bruce denied that the incident ever happened. We couldn’t find anyone who actually had seen this  show. Most parents believed it was all a rumor. But we kids were believers. This one brave boy who stood up to Herby the bully for all the world to see, lives on in our hearts and minds.
The unique feature of television is that you can relive history exactly as it happened in the past. Many of the shows we watched as kids were saved on film and can be viewed on the internet. I don’t recommend it however. The kids’ shows look cheesy and corny and the serious shows aren’t much better. I recently watched a few episodes of Have Gun-Will Travel with Richard Boone as Paladin. The shows concept was great and I would love to see it remade for current times. But when I watched these old episodes, I thought, Man is he ever an obnoxious one dimensional know it all. I guess we can’t really go back to our childhood. We can however savor the memories. I still believe in that lone Wrangler who gave Herby exactly what he deserved. As Texas Bruce used to say, Hasta la vista vaqueros, I’ll be seeing you Wranglers .

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Cola Wars

I opened a checking account at a local bank recently. The teller was trying her darndest to get me to agree to a credit card that I didn’t want. She was good at it too. Even though I deny this to my wife, she was young and attractive and I was enjoying our interchange. She didn’t come right out and ask me if I wanted the card, but got me talking about myself. She shared a little about herself and at just the right moment slipped in the credit card pitch. I listened politely and even agreed with some of the points she made, which was a mistake. I used my standard way of weaseling out of it which is, “Before agreeing to anything, I need to talk it over with my wife.” This is an absolutely true statement. Katie handles the money and is savvier about money matters than I am. But this tactic always feels like a wimp’s way out, like I can’t make decisions for my self. But this young woman was determined. She must have felt she had her fish hooked and now just needed to reel him in. She called me at home that evening. She wanted me to know that I’m a valued customer with the bank and to make sure my overall banking experience had been to my liking. Only after softening me up a while, did she mention the credit card, sort of an Oh by the way tactic. I told her I wasn’t interested. She is still polite to me when I go into the bank, but doesn’t seem to care too much about my overall banking experience anymore.
I guess I should expect attempts to sell me things when I’m at places of business, but I hate it. I don’t like being manipulated. And after all these years I am still susceptible to being caught in their trap. I don’t know anybody who likes being accosted by a sales person, but we accept it as a way of life. Many times I’ve told myself, the next time a sales person comes after me with their phony baloney sales pitch thinly concealed by an interest in me as a person, I’m not going to react at all, but just keep walking. Or maybe I’ll summon up my inner Dirty Harry and out of the side of my mouth whisper, “Get lost asshole”.
I thought I was prepared when I was in the mall the other day. A young man approached me from one of the kiosks. He asked me about my current cell phone service. I told him I had T-Mobile which is what he was selling and he launched into his spiel about a new plan. Before I knew it, I was hooked again. The young man looked a little like my son and I figured he was trying to make an honest living. When I finally pulled away and caught up with Katie and my sister Karen, Katie asked me why I always stop and talk to those sales people. I told her “I don’t know”, and quietly practiced my “Get lost asshole” comeback hoping I’d be ready for the next one.
There is an inherent evil in Capitalism that our former and current enemies see more clearly than we do. Karl Marx built a philosophy around it and the Islamic extremists see it as the enemy of their faith. I looked up the definition of Capitalism in the dictionary: An economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production and distribution of goods, characterized by a free competitive market and motivated by profit. It’s from the last 3 words of the definition, motivated by profit, where the inherent evil springs. If there are no other values guiding the profit motive, all sorts of evils can occur.
It was in the mid 70’s when The Pepsi Challenge commercials first aired. A man stood behind a booth on a city street or in a shopping mall and offered passersby sips from two unmarked cups with cola in them. He then asked the individual which one tasted better. The person of course always chose Pepsi. The other cola was revealed as Coke. Coke had its own ad campaign and these dueling advertisements were referred to in the media as the Cola Wars. At the time I was a long haired liberal and into eating healthy foods. I thought both of these beverages should be poured down the toilet.
In the 1980’s, President Reagan deregulated businesses and they began to merge, the big ones gobbling up the smaller ones. I again thought of the Pepsi Challenge and The Cola Wars  and had an idea for a novel, which of course then would be picked up by Hollywood and made into a feature film. It takes place in the future. Pepsi and Coke have become the dominant companies in America. All other businesses are subsidiaries of these two mega-companies. Every employed person in the US has loyalties to one or the other. This included politicians who are financially supported by either Pepsi or Coke. So everyone was a “company person” and had received many years of corporate brainwashing. People were allowed to only talk about what their company approved of. Everyone spewed the company line, even the news organizations, for they were owned by the Cola companies as well. Our hero and heroine were part of an underground group that regularly got together and practiced speaking the truth to one another.
I never wrote the novel, which is probably why I’m writing this blog and not screen plays for Hollywood. But every time I get caught by a sales person spinning a load of crap, I think of my underground revolutionaries practicing truth telling in the shadows. I also rehearse my Dirty Harry imitation. You never know.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

John Lennon and His Four Piece Band

The other day would have been John Lennon’s 70th birthday. I believe he would have been a cool old man. He loved life and from what I can tell, lived it to the fullest. Every generation has individuals who are deeply important to them as a whole and he was one of those for us baby boomers. I can’t think of any individuals more loved and accepted by a generation than the four piece band John put together in Liverpool in the early ‘60s. The moment, when I heard over the radio that John had been shot and killed, is imprinted in my brain just like when Kennedy was shot, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and two passenger planes crashed into the Twin Towers. Like all icons of any generation, to understand John’s importance to boomers, you have to be part of the generation or talk to people who are. As I recently listened to older news reporters talk about his death and attempt to describe his importance to his “fans”, it was apparent to me that they didn’t really get it. Most young people today have a hard time understanding it as well. I can remember thinking, “What’s the big deal about Frank Sinatra?” But my parents got it.
On February 7th 1964, 77 days after President Kennedy was assassinated, the Beatles came to the US. The nation was depressed and needed a lift and the four lads did just that. They were on three consecutive Ed Sullivan shows and played a series of concerts. It was estimated that 45% of Americans watched those TV shows. The headlines read, “Beatles Conquer America”, but it felt like more of an adoption. Somehow the Beatles belonged to us as much as they belonged to England. After all, they embraced our early rock & roll, rhythm and blues and country music, reflecting it all back to us in their own unique way. It was a mutual love affair from the very beginning. Two years and six months later they played their final live performance at Candlestick Park. The venues had gotten too big and the audiences were too loud. Another band may have performed exclusive high priced gigs for the wealthy, but John’s band always belonged to the people.
In the winter of 1967 I was in basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. One of the few things I liked about the training was marching. Especially when the Drill Sergeants called cadence and we all sang in unison, echoing their creative and often crude poetic rhymes. Much of the marching, however, was done in silence, so I entertained myself by quietly singing my favorite songs. I thought at the time that Rubber Soul was the greatest rock & roll album ever produced. I had listened to it so many times by then, that during those long silent marches out to or back from the rifle range or another training area, I started at the beginning with the first song and worked my way through the entire album.
Not long ago I was at the mall browsing in a music store and came across the Rubber Soul CD. I noticed the songs weren’t in the same order and there were songs from other albums interjected into the mix. I took it up to the counter where I thought the 15 year old sales person could straighten me out about this discrepancy. Or at least this young woman would be interested in my observations about the original album and the differences in this current version. To my chagrin she wasn’t knowledgeable, fascinated or the slight bit interested in my observations. It may have been a female thing because my wife and sister, with whom I was at the mall weren’t interested either.
In the summer of that same year after basic training, I was sent to Army Intelligence school in Baltimore, Maryland. One night while riding around the city with a friend, I heard “A Day in a Life” on the radio. As we used to say, “I was blown away”. When we returned to the barracks, one of the guys had the Sergeant Pepper album. It became the musical background of the barracks for the rest of our time in training and no one ever complained. In a few weeks or months we would all be in Vietnam.
I recently re-watched Imagine, the film created around video footage John had shot of his and Yoko’s personal life. I again remembered his openness and honesty toward the public, especially in his songs. We didn’t love him because he was perfect, but because he was real. He was one of us and we knew it because of the way he acted and from what he said. Aware of his own imperfections, he chose to use his celebrity as a spokesperson for peace. Listening to John’s music and Beatles music today, I’m struck by how positive the songs are. They reflect the growth, struggles, and aspirations of an entire generation.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Farewell to Mercury

1952 Mercury
Here I am alongside a  Mercury convertible. It was at a car show that my friend Jim and I went to in the Seattle area. When we go to these shows, we like to pick out our favorite car of the show and this was mine, a 1952 Mercury Monterey convertible.  I recently read that Ford was phasing out its Mercury brand by the end of the year. GM had already announced stopping production of Pontiac. I don’t know what I expect, but these historic car models are not going to be around anymore so it should be a bigger deal than it is. I’m certain there were plenty of articles in newspapers and magazines and announcements on the news, but I don’t remember seeing very much. A few years went by before I realized Chrysler no longer made Plymouths. Production stopped in 2001. And GM stopped making Oldsmobile in 2004.
I have to admit I turned my back on most American cars sometime in the 1970s. They just weren’t built very well during that decade. If you don’t believe me, watch any episode of The Rockford Files which ran in the mid ‘70s. That was the era of the car chase and James Garner, an experienced car racer, made sure there was one in almost every episode.  His car was a Firebird, which he puts through its paces. It appears to handle the rough treatment pretty well, but the full-size ‘70s cars that are chasing after him are squeaking, floating and bouncing all over the road; you expect to see parts fly off around every corner. And in the background are plenty of examples of the crappy small cars that were built at that time like Pintos, Vegas and Gremlins.
I grew up in the ‘50s. Now that was a good decade for American cars. Our first family car that I  remember was a 1952 Pontiac. It was cream-colored with a dark blue top. Shading the front windshield was an external visor. It had a cool chrome hood ornament of an Indian warrior. After a few years, my parents traded it in for a blue two tone 1955 Mercury. I had my first major rock & roll experience in the back seat of that car and it had nothing to do with sex. I was only 8 years old and we were returning home from a family vacation in Wisconsin.  That was when I first heard Elvis on the radio.
As we cruised down the two lane highways in our Mercury, whenever an Oldsmobile passed by my Dad would say, “Now there’s a good highway car.” I don’t know why he never bought one. My friend Paul’s parents had the same exact Mercury except it was red. He and I first met around this time and we both thought that fact was extremely significant. My parents traded the Mercury in 1959 for a successive string of Chevrolets. Paul’s parents stuck with Mercury, trading the ‘55 in for two 1960 models. One was a white Monterey convertible, a behemoth of a car, the other a black Comet. 
In 1964 Paul’s parents switched over to Pontiacs,  a GTO and Firebird. He was the envy of many a guy driving around in the  GTO which had a 389 cubic inch engine and 3 two barrel carburetors. The two of us spent many weekend days cleaning our cars together in his front yard. Today you would call what we did detailing. The GTO had a white interior and Paul had to use a small brush and a lot of elbow grease to keep it up.
The first Plymouth I remember belonged to my mom’s cousin, Marie. It was a 1947 and had a semi-automatic transmission. Marie explained to me how the semi- automatic worked, but to this day I’m still confused about it. She told me she would give me the car some day. I of course have remembered that conversation all my life, but she had no recollection of it. One day when visiting my grandmother in south St. Louis, Marie was there visiting with her brand new Nash Rambler. Without a word, my Plymouth was gone forever.
I could go on reminiscing about the various Mercurys, Pontiacs, Plymouths and Oldsmobiles I’ve known over the years, but even fewer people would read this blog than already do. If you like cars, I’m sure you have plenty of your own memories, but just one more quick one. Funnyboy’s parents owned a 1962 Pontiac Grand Prix when he and I were in high school together. They used to let him drive it to school every now and then and he’d take me with him. That was a sweet ride.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

My Inner Steve McQueen

Shortly after moving to Arizona, my motorcycle broke. Two of the four valves stuck open. I have no idea why and neither did the motorcycle mechanic who told me it would cost $2,000 to fix. I’m 62 years old and the thought crossed my mind, maybe it’s time to give it up. The service department is part of a motorcycle dealership and to get to it you have to walk through the showroom past all of the shiny new motorcycles. I’ve owned 5 motorcycles over the years and as I dejectedly left the service manager’s office and before I made it to the exit door of the showroom to the parking lot where Katie patiently waited in the car to drive me home, I saw number 6, a silver metal flake, 1100cc Honda Shadow Spirit. #1
Like so many guys of my generation, I blame Steve McQueen for initially igniting my motorcycle passion, specifically in his performance in the movie, The Great Escape and more specifically, one particular scene. I was 15 years old, sitting in a dark theater with a friend, totally transported to the WWII Nazi prison camp where the story takes place. Steve plays Captain Virgil Hilts, a captured Air Force pilot who had been shot down. The other prisoners, from various allied countries, have been digging an elaborate tunnel, but Captain Hilts wants no part of it. He escapes several times on his own by cutting the fence wire and slipping under it, but is always caught and put in the cooler, where he spends his time bouncing a baseball against the wall. The tunnelers see an opportunity in Captain Hilts and ask him to escape again, only this time, map out the area, allow himself to be caught and then bring back the important information that the tunnelers need for the escape. Captain Hilts reluctantly agrees. Steve’s character exemplified what’s good about the American spirit. He was highly independent, but when asked to sacrifice himself for the good of the others, he did so.
The night of the tunnel escape, only a small percentage of the prisoners make it out before being discovered by the guards. Captain Hilts made it and true to his character, continues on alone. Stringing a wire across a road, he successfully knocks a German soldier off his motorcycle. After killing the soldier, Captain Hilts puts on the German uniform and continues his flight on the motorcycle. When passing through a village, German soldiers stop him to ask him questions. Captain Hilts doesn’t speak German, so instead, makes a run for it on the road leading out of the town. The Germans chase after him.
The movie’s director cuts back and forth between various escapees, all attempting to get out of the country. Two of the escapees steal an airplane, several take a train, one rides on a bicycle. When the movie gets back to the motorcycle chase scene, we see the rolling green hills of the countryside. Then over the crest of one of the hills, Captain Hilts roars onto the screen. He has gotten rid of the German uniform and is now wearing a cut off sweat shirt and khakis. He stops the bike, looks in both directions trying to decide which way to go, then guns the motorcycle spinning it around to check out the other side. He does this several times until choosing a direction then takes off across the hills with the German Army in hot pursuit.
I was transfixed watching Steve handle the big German motorcycle like it was an extension of his body. Sometimes he raised himself up on the foot-pegs to negotiate a dip or bump. Spinning the bike around, he placed his foot on the ground just at the right time and in the right place to maintain control. His confidence was obvious. That was it for me. I didn’t just want to be like Steve McQueen, I wanted to be Steve McQueen. Since that wasn’t an option, I settled for some day getting a motorcycle and learning how to ride like that.
My first experience actually riding on a motorcycle was on the back of my friend Pettie’s Honda 90. We rode to an airport where his Dad ran an airline business. It was at least 50 miles outside of Ferguson where we lived. I remember being quite uncomfortable putting down the highway at a slower pace than the rest of the traffic. I’m sure the little Honda 90 was doing its best with its double load. It wasn’t quite a Steve McQueen moment, but the feeling of being on two wheels with my friend, tearing down the highway on a warm summer’s day was exhilarating.
Our friend Funnyboy owned 3 different motorcycles around this time. The smallest was a Honda 250cc Scrambler, his off road bike, a 500cc Triumph single cylinder, we called Thumper and his biggest bike and the most beautiful motorcycle I’d ever seen, a 650cc BSA Lightning, we called Beeza. It had a red and chrome tank with the signature gold sunburst on the sides and the letters BSA through the middle. One evening Funnyboy let me ride it. I felt he was making a big BSA Lightening mistake, but wanted to ride it so badly, I didn’t let on. He coached me on how to shift gears and I took it out onto the highway. I clumsily went through each gear, and when I reached the highest one, I opened up the throttle and totally scared the shit out of myself. I had the frightening realization that the only reason I didn’t fly off the backend was because I had a death hold on both hand grips. If I had opened my fingers even slightly, the bike would have shot out from under me and I’d have been left behind, bouncing down the highway.
I didn’t buy a bike of my own until I got out of the Army. It was a Honda 500 twin. I’ve been slowly upgrading to larger bikes ever since. And now I own the shiny silver Honda Shadow and live in a part of the country where I can ride most of the year on well maintained two lane roads that lead across expanses of land and into the mountains and all sorts of other interesting places. I’m happy to report my ageless, inner Steve McQueen is alive and well. And I’m following the advice of an old crusty Harley guy I once knew, “Remember, keep the shiny side up.”

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The World Needs Us And Our Hippie Values

I recently read an article about the baby boom generation. The author was quick to point out the self indulgent nature of our generation and how we squandered what our parents’ generation worked so hard to leave us. Baby boomer bashing is all the rage these days and there’s nothing but praise for the “Greatest Generation”. It seems to me that each generation can be praised or condemned depending on what factors are accentuated. World War II gave our parents’ generation a cohesiveness which makes it easy to define them in a positive light. When the bad guys tried to take over the world, they stepped up to the plate, both on the home front and overseas, overcoming tremendous challenges and in the end saving the world. And there are many other positive qualities of this generation. They insured that greater numbers of us could get an education. We were well supplied with food, shelter and opportunities for work. In general, it could be said that our parents’ generation were good, decent, hard working people who sacrificed for the betterment of their families and the country.
But when you look at what the “Greatest Generation” left us, we had our challenges too. It was their generation who got us involved in Vietnam and then forced us to deal with it. For those of us who participated in that war, we came home with a seriously tarnished view of our country, our leaders and the people who supported them. We inherited a more dangerous world, the remnants of an arms race that caused us and the Russians to produce an arsenal of weapons that could totally annihilate all living beings on earth many times over. We inherited an America where capitalistic interests were confused with democracy and allowed to influence government decisions and policies at the expense of the natural environment. Capitalistic exploitation and military might became our primary forms of diplomacy around the world. The profit seeking super companies gobbled up small businesses and family farms. We inherited a dependency on the automobile because the highway system was given priority over other forms of transportation, like subways, trolleys and trains. This led to suburban sprawl which contributed to the death or near death of our cities and towns. We inherited a total dependency for energy on finite natural resources, with no plan of transitioning to renewable forms of energy. This insured our current dependency on foreign oil which continues to get us into all sorts of trouble.
In the 1960’s, our generation not only celebrated sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, (hey, we were young), but we also discovered that many of the priorities and values of the “Greatest Generation” were wrong. Subsequently the hippie movement was born. On college campuses across the country, young people began establishing a new set of values. The essence of these values were; all people on earth are brothers and sisters and we should work out our problems peacefully keeping this in mind. Every human deserves equal respect no matter their race, culture, sex, sexual orientation or age. Each individual has great potential and can make a difference by their personal choices and lifestyle. We should not continue to exploit our natural environment, but learn to live in harmony with it. We should strive to live more simply and not accumulate unneeded possessions. Animals have rights too and should be treated respectfully, even farm animals. Don’t blindly trust government and institutions, but look at what they are preaching and how they are acting, then decide for yourself whether to support them. All major religions have truth at the core and these truths are much greater than the differences on the surface. We should strive to live more simply, grow our food locally, and make more of the decisions about our lives at the local level. Peace and love are the guiding principles.
During my college days in the 70’s, I internalized the “hippie values” and was guided by them. They influenced how I thought and acted, how I voted, what I bought or didn’t buy, and the profession I chose. These values were sort of a “What would Jesus do?” guide for me. In fact maybe Jesus was the first true hippie. Using  hippie logic, I could also ask, what would Buddha do? What would Krishna do? Or what would Lao Tse do?
The Beatniks laid the groundwork for the Hippie movement. Their proponents were mainly writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg, and the philosophy was expressed in literary form. The pied pipers of our generation were musicians. They came out of the early 60’s folk music scene and were influenced by the songs of the labor and civil rights movements of the 50’s. Although he denies it, Bob Dylan was our first pied piper in his early years and then with the help of the Byrds showed our musician/poets how to translate the message into rock’n’roll. Unlike today, we were all listening to the same music back then and it was broadcasting the hippie values. The airwaves were full of positive message songs like, The Times They are a Changing, What’s Goin On, Imagine, All You Need is Love, Get Together, Peace Train, He Ain’t Heavy and the list could go on and on. Hollywood jumped on board as well and produced movies like The Graduate, Dr. Strangelove, Little Big Man and The China Syndrome
Across America in our towns and cities there are currently individuals who have kept the hippie values alive. They should be our guides into the future. They sell organically grown produce at farmers markets. They use recycled material in their homes and  renewable forms of energy. Many are partially or fully living off the grid. They buy locally and don’t shop at stores or buy products that exploit third world countries or do damage to the environment. And many of them are young people.
At the core of the sixties phenomenon was a significant paradigm shift in how we think about and live in the world. Those who never made this shift in thinking, cannot judge the movement accurately. Our generation inherited huge problems and much of the country is still in denial about them. But there are a significant number of us who embrace the hippie values. The sixties were a time of trial and error. Now in our older years, we should be able to separate the wheat from the chaff, for the world needs us and our hippie values more than ever. Peace brothers and sisters.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Truth About Dancing

There was a segment on the news the other night about what dance moves men do that are attractive to women. Somebody actually did a study about this. They attached electrodes to various guys, had them dance and then computerized it. I think they had women watch the computer images and then rate the moves. My attention may have wandered during that part of the story. I’ve watched, and most guys look stupid when they dance, at least most white guys and the older they are the stupider they look. There are of course exceptions to this and one of them was a guy named Skeeter who was in the 8th grade when I was in the 7th.
In Junior High we had mandatory dances. We also had mandatory ballroom dance classes. I remember learning the box step, the fox trot and the jitterbug. At the actual dances most guys knew better than to do the box step. Even John Travolta would look dumb doing the box step. Variations on the fox trot and jitterbug were how we mostly danced. When practicing the jitterbug, we learned how to twirl our partner. Holding opposite hands, we stepped up and back and to the side and back, over and over until the teacher called out, “Ok gentlemen, twirl your partner”, and all the guys would lift their arms and under the girls would twirl.
It would be a good two years before I got my adolescent growth spurt. I was probably 4’ 9” weighing 70-80 pounds. Many of the girls’ bodies had filled out, especially the eighth graders and they seemed like giants, alluring yet intimidating. When I twirled these women/girls, they had to bend their knees and duck walk under my arm. At the real dance there would be no teacher telling us when to twirl the girl, and I was anxious about how and when to initiate it. Also, I was confused about how many twirls were appropriate for each dance. To reduce my anxiety, I decided I would do absolutely no twirling and of course no box step either.
At the dances, the boys wore coats and ties and the girls, pretty dresses. These occasions were torture for me. If I could have sat out every dance, I would have. I enjoyed listening to the music and watching the others dance. In fact that’s what I’ve done for the rest of my life, to the dismay of various girlfriends over the years. That was not an option at these dances, however. Slow dances were easy, especially when I had a partner my own size. We just hung on to each other and shuffled our feet around. It was embarrassing to slow dance with one of the women/girls though. I knew they were disappointed being stuck with the little guy and besides my eyes were right at chest level causing me some internal struggle. A few of them agreed to sit these dances out.
Watching the others dance, I noticed the girls moved their whole bodies, harmonized their movements with the music. The guys mechanically went through the dance steps, sometimes in time with the music and sometimes not. Most looked rather wooden, like dancing toy soldiers. A few did the box step and some were twirling their partners far too much.
Skeeter had dark hair and looked older, like a High Schooler. He already needed to shave. His girlfriend Cathy was blond, very sweet and one of the woman/girls. Skeeter wasn’t doing any of the steps we’d been taught in dance class. He moved his feet around in time with the music in a subtle but dramatic way, like he was kicking small rocks. He didn’t look smiley and goofy like the other guys, but had a sneer on his face like he knew the punch line of the joke. Every once in a while, he would look up at his partner and she would smile back at him in a way that made me want to figure out how to give a look like that. I never did.
There was a girl named Libby with whom I actually enjoyed dancing. She was slightly taller, but hadn’t filled out yet. Every time we danced, she seemed as happy to be with me as I was with her. She was a good talker and told me I was a pretty good dancer. I think she lied about that. We talked about how awkward we both felt at the dances and about some of our school classes. She appeared interested when I told her something about a particular song or singer. Once when it was girls’ choice, Libby walked right over and chose me. The song was Mister Blue by the Fleetwoods. This two and a half minute dance almost made up for the hours of torture.
It was during this time period that “The Twist” by Chubby Checker became popular. The ballroom dance steps and holding your partners hand was over. I noticed the guys didn’t look any better doing the twist than the other dances. At least there was no twirling to worry about. I was pleased to see that Skeeter didn’t succumb to the twist craze. He continued to stomp his feet around and give those looks to his partners.
I told Libby what I thought about Chubby Checker. His name said it all, a not very talented commercial version of the great Fats Domino. I went to a few dances in high school, but when they became optional, I opted out. I wouldn’t have minded a few more dances with Libby though. I wonder if Skeeter still dances. He probably doesn’t look as cool dancing in his sixties as he did back then.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

An American National Treasure

I watched Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday celebration on PBS the other night. It was at Madison Square Garden and many celebrities were there to sing his songs. Pete looked good for 90. He was dressed in his working man’s clothes, a flannel shirt, jeans and a baseball cap. He doesn’t have much of a singing voice anymore, but that didn’t stop him from directing the large audience in several sing-alongs including Amazing Grace. Among the celebrities were Joan Baez, who looks and sounds great, Arlo looking the same with white hair, Emmylou Harris, a country songbird, and Bruce Springsteen, who spoke eloquently and from the heart about Pete. Roger McGuinn performed Turn, Turn, Turn on his Rickenbacker 12 string guitar with back up and it sounded just like the Byrds..
I briefly met Pete in 1969 at the Oleo Strut Coffee House in Killeen, Texas. The Oleo Strut was right outside Fort Hood where I was stationed. It was one of many coffee houses that sprung up outside Army forts, where GI’s who were sympathetic to the anti-war effort could come together. If you’re interested in reading more about this movement and the Oleo Strut go to www.underthehoodcafe.org/history.
I had over a year to serve in the Army after I returned from Vietnam. Most of the guys in my Intelligence Detachment were Vietnam Veterans as well and many of us had been in Nam during the TET offensive of 1968. The belief in the futility of the war and the lack of trust in our politicians and military leaders ran rampant among my fellow soldiers. We could congregate and talk openly at the Oleo Strut.
One of my fellow soldiers in the intelligence unit was a CID Special Agent. I think he was a Warrant Officer, but I’m not sure, he didn’t wear any rank. He must have been straight out of Special Agent training school at the time and I know he hadn’t been to Vietnam yet. The CID was the part of Intelligence that investigated Army personnel. We used to see him at the Oleo Strut, trying to look inconspicuous. He avoided making eye contact with us because if he did we would give him a little wave of recognition which in his mind would totally blow his cover. We were certain he was keeping files on us. We razed him a lot about it with our “what the fuck” veteran’s attitude. By the way, this attitude was born and cultivated in Vietnam. Whenever we broke the rules like sneaking into the local village or stealing another unit’s property we would say to each other, “What are they going to do send us to Nam?” We rationalized that if they put us in the brig they would be doing us a favor. For many of us that attitude carried over into civilian life.
The evening Pete was playing, I went down to the Oleo Strut with my buddies, Tony and Phil. Pete was dressed like he had just come off day shift at the factory. He had on a work shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and workman’s pants and boots. His banjo hung around his neck. I don’t remember exactly what songs he played, but when he was through, Tony walked over to him and struck up a conversation. Phil and I joined them. True to his reputation, Pete was friendly and gracious. He was interested in our experiences as soldiers and what we thought about the war. He seemed to understand our dilemma of not feeling a part of the Army and the war effort and of not being accepted by the civilian population either. We were very grateful for his understanding and support and I hope one of us told him that at the time.
Tony asked him what he was up to and he told us about a ship he and some others were building, named the Clearwater. It was a Hudson Bay Sloop, following the blue prints of the old ships that used to run up and down the Hudson. He planned to sail it up and down the Hudson also, putting on concerts at the various river towns. His purpose was to raise awareness and money to clean up the river. He talked about it with such enthusiasm you could tell he was totally committed to this project. He was enlisting the help of fellow musicians and so far he said he had gotten Don McLean to sign on. This project is still going strong today, go to www.clearwater.org and read all about it.
On the PBS special the backdrop on the stage was decorated with an outline in lights of the Clearwater. The celebrities talked about Pete’s socially active life, singing his songs for all the injustices and downtrodden of the world. They also mentioned his many trips and benefit concerts up and down the Hudson Bay in the Clearwater. 
Japan has a designation for people called “Living National Treasure”. The goal is to recognize and preserve the art and the level of knowledge and skill of the individual because it is important to the culture. Pete Seeger is an “American National Treasure” for the art of folk singing and the spirit of nonviolent activism in our country. I cherish the memory of that day we met him in the Oleo Strut.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Discovering Our Strengths

Margaret was a 73 year old woman who was my counseling client for several years. Her diagnosis was chronic depression for which she had been on medication and in therapy for over 10 years. As a child she had been mildly depressed off and on, but her depression got dramatically worse as an adult after her husband died.
During the nearly two years I worked with her, she had recurring suicidal thoughts, but never made any serious attempts. We weren't  making much progress in therapy. Each week I questioned her about her medication and assumed our weekly visits were somehow helping her to “maintain”.
In the community mental health center the push was to help each client return to their highest level of functioning as quickly as possible. When brief therapy models came on the scene, the therapists were encouraged to take workshops to learn all about it. I was somewhat resistant to this type of therapy. I believed therapy was about helping the client see more clearly why they thought and behaved the way they did by uncovering primary experiences from their past and seeing how the dysfunctional themes manifest in their current life. This takes time.
The first brief therapy workshop I attended was presented by In Soo Kim Berg. She and her husband developed Solution Focused Brief Therapy in the 70’s. My resistance broke down quickly after listening to Ms. Berg. She was a dynamic speaker who passionately believed in what she presented. I knew I would never become a complete convert to the brief model, especially for long term deep seated problems. I was comfortably rooted in a more Existential-Humanistic approach. But I left the workshop with one major idea that changed the way I did therapy.
In brief therapy the counselor does not focus on the history of the problem. There is almost no probing into the past to find its origins. The focus instead is on the client’s history of finding their own solutions to life’s problems. The solutions come out of their own past successes, what they did right, instead of what they did wrong.
Margaret came in one day very distraught. She said she had received a letter from the Department of Social and Health Services saying that they had paid her too much over the past year and she now owed them $800. The letter went on to say that DSHS would take legal action if she didn’t pay them back within a short period of time. Margaret lived in subsidized housing and was on a fixed income. Her medications were expensive and she only got partial help paying for them. She had no money to spare. She was in an agitated state over this and at risk for plunging back into deep depression.
Influenced by the workshop, I decided not to focus on the problem, but to work on uncovering Margaret’s strengths. I remembered her telling me during an earlier session that when she was a young woman, after graduating from engineering school, she got a job working in the fledgling aerospace industry. She was one of few women in a male dominated field and was proud of this. She said she felt like “one of the guys” and that she “could hold my own with the best of ‘em.”
As she droned on about her miserable life, how everybody took advantage of her and how she was again a victim of the “system”, I interrupted. I asked her to tell me more about her time in the aerospace industry. She didn’t see how this was relevant, but she reluctantly agreed. I kept up the questioning in my best “Colombo” style until she started getting into it and began spontaneously recounting experiences from that period. As the session progressed, I witnessed her transformation. The powerless, depressed woman that initially came in to the session had straightened up and become more animated and alive. In her once cloudy eyes, I now saw fire and clarity. I never once mentioned the letter from DSHS and when the session ended, I knew she was infused with a forgotten part of her self, a part that was confident, assertive and capable of handling whatever came her way.
At the following week’s session, Margaret didn’t mention the letter. Finally I asked her about it. “Margaret, what happened concerning the money DSHS said you owed them?” “Oh that!” she replied in a rather nonchalant way. “When I got home after our last session, I called my state representative and gave him a piece of my mind. He was very nice and finally said ‘Margaret, don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of everything’. A few days later I received another letter from DSHS saying I didn’t owe them anything”.
I never became a brief therapy convert, but it is my belief that we all have many parts that make up our personality. Some of these parts are dysfunctional and some are highly functional. When we are stuck in one of life’s dilemmas, we sometimes forget to draw on the more capable parts. Margaret had temporarily forgotten the part that “held her own with the best of ‘em” and over a number of years had come to identify with being a depressed, powerless victim.
That one session did not cure her depression, but it changed how we worked together. She was eventually able to get off medication altogether and rarely felt depressed. My therapy with other clients changed as well. We spent more time discovering and developing  strengths and less time focusing on problems.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Farewell Drink

Vietnam Service Ribbon I didn’t expect a call from Rich. I assumed he was back in Tennessee glad to be out of the Army like I was. I was staying at my parents’ place in Louisville at the time and Rich said he was out at the airport and would like to see me before he caught his plane. I asked him where he was going and he said “Back to Vietnam.” I couldn’t believe it and he probably could tell by my long silence. He said, “I’ll tell you all about it when you get out here. I’m in the airport bar.”
I saw him sitting in the corner at a table for two with a mixed drink in front of him. He didn’t notice me until I was standing right beside his chair. He looked up at me and seemed a little startled by my presence. “Hey man, how’s it going?” He motioned for me to sit down. He was in his dress greens which I thought we had both turned in months ago. The waitress came over and I ordered a beer. We didn’t waste time on pleasantries, that’s not the kind of relationship we had, so I asked him straight out, “Rich, why in the hell are you going back?” He was smoking one of those unfiltered cigarettes that turned his fingers yellow. He took a puff and blew it out of the side of his mouth.
“I can’t relate to anybody here. If I’m around people very long, I just get pissed off about something.” He took a sip of his drink; his eyes got a faraway look in them. “I don’t know, things just don’t make sense for me here anymore.”
I was still in shock, “And you think it makes more sense over in Nam.”
“Well yeah, I know the war can be pretty harsh, but life did make more sense there for me.” The waitress brought over my beer. It was a little early in the day for me to be drinking, but that’s what Rich and I did when we were together.
We first met in Army Intelligence School in Baltimore. He was sort of a loner but we hit it off right from the beginning. He was a serious guy, preoccupied by his thoughts. He thought I was funny and he had this explosive laugh that sounded goofy. When the rest of the guys went down to the “Block” to a nudie bar, Rich and I would go over to the EM club for a few beers and talk. After our intelligence training was over, we were the only two from our class sent to Fort Hood Texas.
I remember the night we got our orders. The Enlisted Men’s club was packed. We were all celebrating passing the program. One of the Sergeants came in and someone pulled the plug on the juke box. It got deathly quiet. The Sergeant said he had our orders and began reading them in alphabetical order. Rich and I were last. There must have been 30 of us in there. A couple of guys were gong to Germany, and one to Korea, everyone else was headed straight to Vietnam. When he called out our names and said “Fort Hood, Texas”, for an instant I thought I was home free. But then he added,”… to be deployed with the 198th Brigade to Vietnam”. The entire Brigade was going by ship to Southeast Asia, sailing from San Francisco. When the Sergeant left and the juke box was plugged back in, the song that began to play and had been interrupted was, “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” We laughed about making sure to get some flowers. We had to laugh.
Rich was sipping his drink, again staring into the open room. “So what happened at home?” I knew his mom had passed away shortly after he entered the Army.
“My dad’s still at the house, but he really didn’t want anything to do with me.”
“What about the job at the electronics store?” He’d worked at this store since he was 15. The owner, Herb, had taken him in after his dad kicked him out of the house.
“Herb hired a new guy. He said he would try to find work for me, but he really doesn’t need any more help.” He then added, “The Army told me I would make E-6 within the year and they’re giving me my old job back.”
Rich and I worked together for the first few months in Vietnam at the Headquarters base camp. Then he was transferred to Quang Ngai City. I only visited him once down there, but could see his lifestyle was much different from mine. He lived in a small walled compound in the heart of the city. He had his own small apartment. When he showed it to me, I could tell a female had helped him put it together. He said he had a hooch girl that came in and kept things straight. I suspected she was more than just his maid. We went out that day and had a beer in the city. It was the first and only time I was ever in a Vietnamese city. It actually felt civilized. He did his intelligence work under Lieutenant Wilcox and they were the only Americans working there. At the time of my visit, Lieutenant Wilcox and my lieutenant went off to play handball, then they were going to sauna before returning to work. Like I said, this was not at all like my Vietnam experience. They told Rich and me to go out and have a beer, so that’s what we did.
We sat in a café smoking and drinking warm Ba muoi Ba (Vietnamese beer). The waiter brought us a couple chunks of ice, but Rich waved him off and told me not to use it unless I wanted to spend the next few days and nights on the shitter. For a short while sitting there in the café with Rich, it didn’t seem like there was a war going on. The streets were full of bicycles, motor bikes and those 3-wheeled vehicles that were like tiny buses. I had trouble relaxing. I kept thinking how easy it would be for the VC to lob a grenade or satchel charge into the café.
Being together again at the airport bar, I thought this was probably the last time I’d see him, and it was. As he inhaled cigarette smoke, I noticed in this time of long hair and radical granny glasses, he still wore those grey plastic army issue ones. We shook hands and briefly looked into each others’ eyes. “Hang in there, bro’,” was all I could think to say. He nodded, “I will”, and he left the bar to catch his plane. I’ve looked for his name on the wall. There are several guys with the same name as his, but I don’t think it’s him.