Friday, August 19, 2011

A Familiar Burden of War Veterans

We’re enjoying being in Seattle again. I am more familiar with and more comfortable in Seattle than any other large city. I’ve only actually lived here a few times. The first time was in 1975. I had graduated from the University of Oregon the year before with a BA in General Social Science. This was a wonderful program that allowed me to take a wide variety of courses, but provided me with absolutely no specific skills or knowledge directly applicable to the job market. So after graduating, I accepted a job in a factory that produced irrigation systems. I did a variety of bone weary menial tasks, but after about 6 months, I wanted out. I quit and moved from Eugene to Seattle. By this time I had been out of the Army for 5 years. College had provided a sanctuary away from the everyday world that I was having trouble relating to. Vietnam had changed me. I was confused, angry and traumatized by what I had experienced there. But this side was hidden way down deep under a “normal, nice guy” persona. In Seattle I got a job as a taxi driver for Yellow Cab on the evening shift. Through map reading and much trial and error, I learned my way around the city. I enjoyed driving a cab most of the time and fell right into the roll. My hair was long and my uniform was a tee-shirt, jeans and leather jacket. I worked off the “extra-board”. I’d go in well before the shift started, sign my name on the board and wait my turn for the next available taxi. This allowed me to work when I needed money and take time off whenever I wanted. I bought a 500cc Honda and rode it into work. On days off, and when the weather permitted, I took long rides up into the mountains. As a cabbie I became familiar with the underbelly of Seattle. In the dark of night, I transported well dressed, middle aged men to seedy hotels and apartment buildings where they found drugs and prostitutes. Sometimes they paid me to wait outside. I felt more comfortable in this world than the daylight social world of relationships and commerce. I needed an element of danger in my life to feel alive. I was part of the city and drove my cab fast and with aggression. I picked up a fare in White Center, south of Seattle. I took the young man to an address on Capital Hill. He said he didn’t have any money and quickly got out of the cab. I got out too, went around the big car and stood in his way. “You knew you didn’t have any money and still let me drive you all this way?” “That’s right man, now get the fuck out of my way.” I grabbed his coat and slammed him up against the cab. I didn’t say anything. Looking into his eyes, I saw fear. He could tell I wanted to kill him and he was getting ready to die. With adrenalin strength, I held him this way for what seemed like a long time, but finally backed away. “Get the hell out of here.” And he shuffled off. This was the first time I’d experienced a part of me that I now call “the angry vet”. I would have many opportunities to get familiar with this part over the next 40 years. I got a second job at The Fish & Chip Company in Leschi on the western shore of Lake Washington. One day as I was starting my cab shift, I drove to the restaurant to pick up my first pay check. While walking back to the cab, a car slowed down and a guy thrust a pistol out the passenger side window and yelled, “Hey asshole” and fired directly at me. I hit the ground. I wasn’t hit. Before taking the time to think, I jumped up, slid into the cab and took out after the car. They realized I was after them and tried to lose me. It was a high speed chase along the lake and then back into the residential area. My cab was a huge Plymouth Fury. It drove and handled like a barge. In pursuit, I side swiped a parked car. They were in a black Mercedes, much quicker and more agile. They ditched me in the maze of suburban streets, so I pulled over to the side of the road and turned off the engine. My hands were shaking uncontrollably. I sat there for the longest time until finally breaking down into tears, huge guttural sobs. What was I going to do if I caught up with them? I didn’t have a weapon. The “angry vet” doesn’t think very clearly before acting. I would have charged right at them, even if their guns were blazing away. Many of the Vietnam veterans I worked with as a counselor avoided a variety of everyday social situations. They would tell me that these situations made them uncomfortable. A big part  of that  uncomfortable  feeling  was their fear that the hidden “angry vet” would be triggered by someone and if it was, they were afraid of what it might do. It’s a familiar and disabling burden of war veterans. Being in Seattle this time is about visiting with friends and relatives, enjoying the August weather and taking in the beauty of the surrounding water and mountains. Some of those seedy areas I used to be familiar with, like Belltown, have been transformed into upscale condos and shops. I’ve noticed  cab drivers around town and wonder what their lives are like.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

We Stopped in Palm Springs Before Heading North to Family, Friends and Cooler Weather

Katie and I are on vacation. Being on vacation is not that different from our regular retired life, except that we’re sitting in different places, surrounded by different scenery and talking with different people. We’re in Seattle now and the most notable difference is the weather. We have successfully escaped the Arizona heat and there is nowhere more beautiful than the Pacific Northwest in August.
We drove here and our first stop was Palm Springs. We’ve been to Palm Springs several times before, but never in the summer. July is not the time to visit. The temperature was easily over the 100 mark. After putting our bags in the room, we decided to walk downtown to a Mexican restaurant recommended by the Concierge. The name of the restaurant was Las Casuelas and she said it was on the left hand side of the street in the middle of downtown. “The food is good, reasonably priced and the atmosphere is great with outdoor dining and live music.”
We were extremely hot on our walk downtown. Not only was the temperature over 100 degrees, but the humidity was high as well. Many of the restaurants along the way had water misters for their outside tables. The cool water vapor hung in the air over the outdoor tables and the sidewalks. We slowed our pace while passing through these cool spots. A few times we stood still in the mist for several refreshing minutes.
We noticed the merchandise in many of the stores was straight out of the 1950s. Some of it was actual ‘50s stuff and some retro; colorful plastic drinking glasses, rattan furniture, aluminum and vinyl tables and chairs, Polynesian artifacts and lots more. I don’t know if this is a national trend or just a Palm Springs thing. The heyday of this town was probably the‘50s, so the period stuff didn’t look out of place.
As we drew near the center of town, we began tromping on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars area. It’s similar to the one in Hollywood. Some of the names on the sidewalk were familiar, but many were not. We recognized famous actors, musicians, and authors, but who were these other people? I wondered what the criteria were for getting your name on one of these stars. You can find out just about anything on the internet, so I looked.
To be considered for a star, the individual has to have actually lived in the greater Palm Springs area with some regularity (the length of time is not specified) and his/her presence must  contribute to “the charm, worldwide prominence and name recognition of Palm Springs.” (subjective criteria, to say the least). The categories drawn from are: show business, literature, pioneers/civic, humanitarian, sports and military.
The first people whose names were immortalized on these stars in 1992 were: Earle C. Strebe, William Powell, Ruby Keeler, Charlie Farrell and Ralph Bellamy. All of these people had been prominent and influential residents of Palm Springs. I was familiar with the actors William Powell (Nick Charles in the Thin Man movie series), Ruby Keeler (actress, dancer and once married to Al Jolson) and Ralph Bellamy (one of the old rich guys along with Don Ameche in “Trading Places”), but had never heard of Earle Strebe or Charlie Farrell. I discovered that Charlie Farrell was a silent movie actor. He and Ralph Bellemy, started the Palm Springs Racket Club. I can imagine the stars needing some healthy recreation and exercise between bouts of drinking, smoking and carousing. Earl C. Strebe was the owner of The Plaza Theater that opened in 1936. In its day, it put on live theatrical plays. Today it’s the home of “The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies”.
Katie and I found Las Casuelas restaurant which appeared quite plain, old and run down. In the front was a small hot looking seating area with no misters, so we went in and sat at a well used booth in the air conditioned interior. The food was good and the staff was friendly, but it seriously lacked atmosphere. After dinner we continued our walk downtown. We remembered the lights on the palm trees at Christmas during a previous visit and Thursdays when the street was closed for the arts & crafts and food vendors. The town was bustling with people at those times, but now, near the end of July, it was nearly deserted.
In the ‘90s Katie and I and my sister, Karen, flew to Palm Springs for a spiritual retreat. It was the annual New Year’s retreat with Gurumayi, the guru of Siddha Yoga. We didn’t actually attend the retreat, but went to a workshop just prior to it. The retreat, typical of Siddha Yoga functions, was too expensive for us. Our workshop was led by one of the monks, but unexpectedly Gurumayi showed up and led the large group in meditation. She was petite and quite beautiful. Some of the people around me were weeping in her presence. I wasn’t feeling much of anything, maybe just a little irritated at all the weeping going on around me. After the meditation was over, Gurumayi slowly walked down the aisle, stopping to talk with a number of people. She talked for a long time to a guy right in front of me. I have to admit, I would have liked her to look my way, just a little glance of recognition, but she didn’t. She walked right by me and I still didn’t feel anything. When she exited the large hall, everyone followed her with expectant looks on their faces. I’m sure it’s just my unenlightened ego, but I was embarrassed to be part of it. I absolutely did not want to chase after her like all the others.
The best thing about that trip to Palm Springs was the guided bus tour. Our tour guide and van driver was very informative and quite animated telling us about the history of the area and showing us the current and former homes of various stars. We couldn’t go to Bob Hope’s huge house on the hill, where, we were told, he entertained guests. But the guide did show us a small modest house in a normal looking neighborhood, where he said Bob and Dorothy actually lived. I strained to look in the windows as the van crept by hoping to see someone stirring inside, but no luck. I like thinking about Palm Springs in the ‘50s. It must have been a great time to live there and hobnob with the stars.
As Katie and I continued our walk downtown, we came upon another Las Casuelas restaurant. The old mission style building had a large courtyard crowded with people drinking margaritas, talking, laughing and listening to a live band playing infectious, compelling Reggae tunes. Water misters hung in trees above their heads, fountains bubbled everywhere and everyone looked cool and happy. The concierge was right; this would have been a great place to eat, oh well.
On the walk back to our room we paused at the sculpture of Lucy lounging on a bench. I heard on the news, she would have turned 100 years old the other day. I don’t know why there is a statue of her there, but she deserves it for making us all laugh for so many years. Tomorrow we head north to friends, relatives and cooler weather.