Monday, June 30, 2008

I Had A Job Folding Paper Sacks: Des Moines 1987

After high school--once I went off to Iowa City for college--I had a transient relationship with Des Moines. I guess you could say I've had a transient relationship with everywhere in my life (in fact everyone's life is a transient relationship, when it comes down to it) but this is how I've always framed it in my mind, that both Des Moines and the state of Iowa were "home" yet they were home in the sense that it was a place where I stopped in to get fed, to do my laundry, to put away some coin and feel safe and secure for a while; a place to reorganize, re-energize, a place to contemplate and do some work. Iowa is good for that. And, except for a couple of stints back in Iowa City, Des Moines was the city in Iowa where it was best for me to reload.
My parents lived in Des Moines then (my mother still does), I had a brother there, I had friends from Urbandale High who I sometimes stayed with, who I hung out with when I was in town (there are only two left now, in DM, that I can think of). I could always freeload in the city, or pay a nominal fee for a spare bedroom, couch, floor, and I could usually find a job.
Twice I worked full time at Younkers Department Store at the Merle Hay Mall. Once I worked full time for Younkers at the Ninth Street Warehouse. I worked mowing lawns for Tru-Green in Johnston, I worked a little concrete construction, I worked unloading trucks from 6pm to 2am at the UPS hub, I briefly worked in a factory that made sacks and bags and plastics (my job was to tend a machine that made these giant rolls of industrial plastic--I mean long and heavy, forklift-heavy--and it would take one or two days to make the roll; I was supposed to watch it till it hit a certain weight and size, make a cut by hand, stop the machine and then start a new roll, but mainly I stood and watched the machine spin the plastic like clear thin carpeting onto a giant spool). I also had many sporadic temp jobs, usually for Manpower, in Des Moines.
I had a temp job on the east side of town for a business that made inflatable buildings. They would create these things per each specific order and I think some of them could be sprayed with concrete to form a lasting structure. But it involved heavy plastic, vinyl, that they cut into large sheets by hand with extremely sharp scissors, hand sewed the small parts, grommet-punched doors and windows, and then they would take these big, cut vinyl sheets and seal them together. To do this they had invented this strange machine that heated and glued the long sheets. A man rode in the machine, operated it as it moved backwards along the concrete floor inside the shop (the machine was like something from Dr. Seuss, not huge but full of parts), my job was to walk with the man and machine and watch the markers on the two sheets to see how the seam matched up, and I'd call out by how much they were missing: "Quarter inch." "Half inch" "One inch". The operator would make adjustments as he slowly rolled backwards towards a wall. The guy employed to run the machine was a Nam Vet and ex-motorcycle gang member. Nice guy, really. He told me that he had lost part of his intestine in the war and so could not control his flatulence--to excuse him if he farted. I did not know if this was true or if it was only an excuse to let him pass gas in front of people. He also told me how, in Iowa, he and some biker pals had gotten so drunk and stoned on pills that they had taken off and ridden all the way to Chattanooga and he could not recall a single moment of the ride, just that he had been partying in Des Moines and later found himself riding through the mountains of Tennessee.
I had a temp job where I tested lawn mowers for AMF. I don't think the AMF company even exists anymore. The way they tested lawn mowers was simply to mow lawns, using the same riding mower again and again. I guess it was a longevity test for the machines. There was a supervisor who had a office and desk and, as best I could tell, he spent all his time there behind the desk, where he looked at dirty magazines (I caught him twice and I was let go not long after the second time). Then there was the foreman--really the full time lawn mower tester--and he was a very nice person, wife and kids and a stupid job he accepted with little complaint (but I felt more sorry for the supervisor). So he and I would go out each day and mow these lawns for free. We'd mow the AMF Company lawns, we'd mow these cascading lawns for some Polk County offices, City offices, places like that. Big lawns. We'd simply ride back and forth in the heavy sun on these mowers, back and forth, stop for break, stop for lunch, stop for break, stop to go home. Sure, there was the loading and unloading, gas and oil, the driving to a few different locations, but mainly it was back and forth on AMF lawnmowers over huge swaths of green Iowa grass. The foreman was a Mormon. I saw him reading his literature and bible during breaks and I talked to him a bit about it, no big deal. I was, and am, pretty non-religious but it's certainly okay if other people are religious as long as they're not crazy about it (just like it's okay to be non-religious as long as you aren't crazy about it) (who gets to define "crazy" you ask? . . . I do). He told me he used to be a security guard for AMF but switched to a day job to be with his family, he told me he liked me because most people laughed at him when they found out he had switched jobs and that he was a committed Mormon.
I had many other temp jobs in Des Moines, outdoors and in offices and in warehouses. I had jobs that lasted only a few hours, one's that lasted weeks, had offers of full time work, got fired from a lumberyard job for sneaking off at lunch with another temp and coming back late, had a job downtown moving furniture where I showed up so hungover that the buildings swayed, the morning clouds bubbled, every time I looked upwards. I had a job folding paper sacks.
This particular job was an advertising promotion for Younkers. It was long after I had been a full time employee of the company and it was only a coincidence that I ended up working for them, sort of, one last time. This job was in an upstairs room in a dusty warehouse downtown (but not the 9th Street one where I used to work). It was a fluorescent lit room full of big flat tables where about two dozen of us temps stood and folded smallish paper sacks with the Younkers logo and stacked them, then these sacks would be put in the mail or in the Sunday newspaper or something as a promotion to shop at Younkers. It was very strange: a bunch of people standing around in a hot airless room folding brown paper bags. But even there, among these unknown people, there were little dramas and sense of social orders. A lot of the temp workers knew each other--they were mostly high school drop outs, or underachievers, from the same southside neighborhood. I worked next to a small, roundish young guy who, though not outright retarded by any means, was obviously a little slow or simple-minded. But we talked. There was also the one tough guy working there--brash and strutting--but the guy next to me told me how the tough guy tried to fight him once and my guy just jumped him and beat him and now the tough guy would have nothing to do with him. On the next day, the small guy told me a story how he had inherited his uncle's car and a friend and his girlfriend talked him into driving them out to Colorado. When they got out to the mountains, the friend and his girl stole his car and left him. Now, this guy told me he had brought his dog with him, a German Shepherd named King. So it was him and King moneyless and carless in Colorado. And he started walking. Down the highway, man and dog, walking back to Iowa. He told me how eventually a woman stopped--as much out of concern for the dog, it sounded like, because she was a vet--who put him up and treated his dog whose feet were torn up from walking. She found them both a way to get back home. It was an interesting story. But after that, the lady who was the supervisor for the sack folding separated the two of us. She didn't like us talking. Hmmm. Here we were, folding sacks in Des Moines for a few dollars an hour in a hot dusty poorly-lit room, and we couldn't even tell stories to each other.
What good is a lousy job if you can't even tell stories?

Friday, June 27, 2008

Iowa City and the East Village: New York City 1988

I had moved from Florida's panhandle in January to Champaign, Illinois--worked for a bit, living with Fru--when my friend Jimmy gave me a call and asked if I wanted to sublet a place in NYC. Jimmy was a musician and wanderer who I'd met while painting houses in Seaside, Florida. So, with Fru's blessing, I went out east. This was in February.
To get to the Big Appellation, I went to Chicago first--Fru and I taking the train up, or maybe Don drove us--and got one of those car delivery deals where they needed someone to drive a car out east (but that's another story). Anyway, I met Jimmy in New York and he had an upstairs two-bedroom place in Queens for us--it was in Flushing around 69th Street. But we didn't spend much time in Queens.
I had never been to NYC before and I was duly stunned and delighted by the city. I had a back room in the apartment (which was a two-story house, ugly as all get out, with the downstairs belonging to some old woman) which had been used as a storage room. I cleared out an area to sleep and at night--to my surprise--there was a fantastical view of the Manhattan skyline from the small rear window: electric honeycomb, the Trade Centers, Empire and Chrysler Buildings, everything all lit up and aglow in movie-photo-stage-like fashion. But, as said, we didn't spend a lot of time there, we mostly hung out in Manhattan. And in Manhattan, we mostly hung out in the East Village. Jimmy had been to New York a number of times, and he liked the East Village. He was going to look for work at a recording studio, I think. I wasn't really looking for work, not right away, though would try and find some if I wanted to stay beyond our sublease.
It must have been our second or third day in town. We were near St. Marks Place, we were on Bowery, or maybe it was Broadway around 9th or 10th--some big avenue with wide sidewalks and tons of pedestrians. It was cold, grey, interesting. Jimmy and I stopped to make a phone call on that street, next to a subway terminal. I don't recall why he was making a call, to find work perhaps, and I stood there with him, hands in pockets, looking around. And as I looked around, I noticed a young woman walking along the walk. And she noticed me. Our eyes met and it was a look of immediate recognition: it was Donna.
I'd known Donna for almost all my years in Iowa City, we'd both graduated from the University of Iowa, and here she was walking down this particular avenue at this particular time in this particular year and month in New York City. Holy moly. She came over and could not believe it, nor could I . . . Perhaps this is a common thing, seeing someone you know in NYC, but it seemed strange odds to me . . . So we talked while Jimmy was talking on the phone and then I introduced Jimmy to Donna when he was off the phone. They got along fine. Donna was working editing commercials and cartoons and stuff in Manhattan and she had her own little closet of an apartment in the East Village. From then on, we hung out with her and her friends quite a bit.
The thing was, it turned out there were quite a few ex-Hawkeyes in the city. She took me around and I saw old acquaintance-friends from my residence hall days and bar nights and classes, and other's who had lived in Iowa City who I had not known. It was very strange to me--it was like some secret club, so secret I knew nothing of it, and they'd all agreed to move to New York City from Iowa. I'd always avoided the east coast of the USA because I saw myself as a Westerner, then I fell in love with the South (and later South Florida, which is not The South), but the East--and NYC in particular--always represented the old, crowded, blueblood America to me. And, yes, I was wrong. So, it amazed me all these Iowans--or at least ex-Iowa City citizens--were here and that I had so serendipitously found them. It made me feel that anyone could go anywhere: if Iowans could settle in NYC, why not in Paris or Tunis or Buenos Aires or Bombay?

Last year I went back to New York City. My first time back in almost twenty years. And this time, I saw no one I knew from anywhere.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Bird on a Highway: Wyoming 1989

This was outside of Cody, Wyoming. Fru and I were driving back to Champaign, Illinois from Missoula, Montana--one of many such crossings we made when we lived out west. But what I still remember is a bird that had been struck by a car as we came into Cody; Highway 120, I think, just outside of Yellowstone. I was driving among semi-heavy traffic, but up ahead I could see a single bird dipping down and up in the middle of the two-lane. I thought that odd--as I said, there were a lot of cars zipping along that morning. And as we came upon the spot, I could see that there was a second bird--a bird that had been hit and was down on the asphalt, almost on the dotted yellow line that divided the highway, and the other bird was flying down and back above the fallen one, it's movements harried, panicked. 
These were common western birds I did not--still do not--know the name of. They were soft brown to tan, larger than a sparrow but smaller than a magpie. I'd seen them often enough in the mountain states, they were like a swallow or a mockingbird but were neither of those avians. But as I drove by (Fru did not see them and I did not tell her of them until much later) I could see the desperation of the situation, could tell that this was the one bird's mate who had been hit (maybe the other was already dead, but I think it was still alive) and the healthy bird was trying to figure out what to do, trying to help its mate, not ready to give up.
All of this in an instant. And--despite myself--I found it undeniably heartbreaking. Seriously. It can still bother me to this day: the flapping, the alighting and taking off, the unmitigated sadness and fright of the flying bird's movements. I'm sorry, but it affected me deeply.
I realize that I'm humanizing, that I'm transposing emotions onto the living bird. But that's what people do. It's humanity, even when the subject isn't human. And you can't tell me there was not emotion, some form of loss or impending loss, in that creature's mind and heart. Perhaps, not long after that, the bird gave up, moved on, found a new mate--most likely that's the case and that such animals don't have memories of specific distress (be it by nature or necessity of survival)--but in my mind and memory, the bird still suffers.

I think one reason why it affected me and why it stuck with me is that Fru and I had just been married. We lived in Missoula then, but were married in a Lutheran church in Seattle. Fru's father was throwing us a belated reception in Champaign--a large affair with lots of family (most from Fru's side)--and we were on our way to the event. But I had been with Fru for over two years by then. I'd moved from Florida, came back from New York City, to live with her. We'd moved out to Montana--first to Stevensville, then Missoula--together and were doing fine. Happy and in love. But before our wedding, Fru's mother had died from a reoccurrence of breast cancer that had spread beyond hope. It was not totally unexpected, but was not also a given. So, we were newlyweds, her mother had died, we were on our way to a celebration where one very important member would be missing. And I saw this mini-drama of birds along the highway. I extrapolated it to my own situation and fears and sense of personal tragedy.
Life is a tough thing sometimes. Some people believe its sadness or difficulty, its haphazardness and violence and competition are life's norm and we gather together and make rules and believe in our respective beliefs to allay this natural condition. Maybe so. Maybe not so. But even the death of that bird and the frantic sadness of its mate is enough to make you wonder.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Small Memory in Idaho #2

Actually, I think a lot of men are like this, but when I'm out in open spaces--say hiking a trail or driving small roads in unpopulated areas--I like to stop and take a piss. Beyond the basic necessity and relief, maybe it's a simple or primal territory-marking pleasure, or perhaps it's just a stop-and-smell-the-roses (or in this case, urine) moment, a timeout for contemplation while also leaving your male scent behind . . . I don't know. I do know that I do it and know that others do also. Anyway, this memory is of one such moment.
It must have been in 1987 and I was winding my way back to Iowa from Seattle (and I would later that year wind my way back to Florida from Iowa). I was driving my powder blue Ford Maverick through a sunny morning in eastern Idaho. I recall I pulled into the town of Swan Valley, east of Idaho Falls, on my way to Wyoming and an eventual stop in Jackson Hole. I got gas--maybe--and inside the convenience store they had cans of beer on ice near the register. Sure it wasn't even ten in the morning, sure I had a long drive ahead, but I pulled a single tall boy from the ice and bought it. And yes, I drove off and opened it and enjoyed that breakfast beer very much thank you while I headed up from the plains and into the foothills of tall mountains--the Teton Range--on tiny Highway 31. And, as might be expected, I needed to stop and take a leak.
No one else was around much, so before the Wyoming border I pulled off the to the side of the curved and rising blacktop and stepped down into the woods along the road's side. It was warm but not hot and the pines, the dry western earth, smelled good. But no sooner had I found a quiet spot, unzipped my fly and my eyes adjusted to the shade, then I saw the dead deer. This was a full grown deer--a doe, I guess, as there were no antlers--and it was lying upon its side under the trees in the brown needles. It was a recent kill, because the fur was still brown and soft-looking, eyes still there--glassy and taxidermied-looking--and there were no obvious wounds to see. No doubt it had been hit by a car or truck and made it this far into the woods before dying.
I went ahead and finished my piss. Looked at the dead animal remotely, if I recall right. I'd seen many such animals before, but usually while singing by at forty or sixty or eighty miles an hour. But here was this dead deer at my feet, an unknown casualty of the manmade world--unknown until my random discovery. And I don't know why I still remember it--as I said, I was not shocked or upset about this dead deer--but it was, is, a small tragedy in its own right, the death of this one individual animal on a small highway in a small section of Idaho. And it happens everyday, to all sorts of animals, to insects and birds and fish and mammals, to humans: accidental and careless death.
I wonder if there is a statistic for death caused by being in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

To Whom It May Concern #1

I'm off to the British Virgin Islands until the 22nd of this month. It's a good thing no one reads this post--so far at least--as it gives me time to build it, to figure out how to decipher my own inanities and memories and display them. This is not a political or topical site, so time and patience work well enough for now. Looks like I'll be going back to Illinois and Iowa in July: cornfields, pigs & cattle, wind and tall clouds against the blue, those comfortable midwestern landscapes.
There is nothing more to report.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Feat of Strength & The Steel Door: Los Angeles 1985

When I first worked in L.A. for Mike, we remodeled sites for The Jenny Craig company to put in weight loss centers (and yes, I did meet Jenny Craig), but later that year, in the summer, we worked putting together check cashing stores. These places were like pawn shops in a way, usually in not-so-great neighborhoods, usually dealing with the poor and hard luckers. Anyway, the main feature in these places--the small "box" where the employees worked--were steel cages with bulletproof glass windows. So most of our work was putting these cages together, screwing together 11-gage steel panels, anchoring them into the concrete flooring, etc. These cages also had heavy heavy steel doors. They were big, bulky, bombproof, heavy as a European automobile. Usually two of us moved them into place before we would bolt them down.
For a while Mike ran two crews. I became the foreman of one of them. But later, Mike's father (who was in Chicago, who set up the work for Mike and would come out now and then), sent out a couple of his employees from Chi-town. One was Kenny and the other was Dave or Tom or Bill something, just a regular ol' American name. We were finishing up at a spot out east--maybe in Riverside or San Bernardino or Ontario--and it came time to place the door. So, Dave (if that was his name, sorry, I just can't remember) says he's got it.
We were a tired, sweaty, tight-muscled group, thinking about the end of the day, thinking about showers, cold beer, women, about showers with women while drinking cold beer--things like that--and here he was, Dave from Chicago, going to lift one of these monolithic doors all by himself and put it in place. We all looked at him like we should have looked at him: Why? Are you crazy? . . . Dave was a big guy. Not a huge, muscular guy in the body-builder mode, but a hefty midwestern middle linebacker kind of guy. So, even though we were dubious, we just shrugged. Okay. Go at it. If it works for you, we'll sit here and let you do it.
He went over to this steel monstrosity, wrapped his arms around it while squatting just a bit, then straightened himself. Sure enough, the big door lifted with him. Yow. Then he shuffled, maybe four, five feet, and set it down in the gap among the already erected steel panels. He then adjusted it to fit the space and we came over and screwed that puppy in.
We didn't say much to him, but, despite the showmanship of the effort, we were impressed. I'm still impressed, or at least, still recall the impression it made on me (and later, in Florida, remembering Dave's deed, I'd do my own silly show of strength involving a cast iron stove). It was something that, not considering the unnecessity of it, I didn't think could be done. I mean, these doors were twice the size of a normal portal, seriously heavy--thicker and of a heavier gage than the panels--and impossibly awkwardly bulky. But he moved it.
So, when you see people pulling cars with their teeth, or tossing tree trunks around, or just doing things that don't look like they can be done with mere human muscle, I'm telling you that they can be. Yes, you have to possess the strength, but you also have to believe that you can do it, trust that it's not impossible. And it's funny that a show of strength still holds meaning to us in some form, in some primordial entertaining way. It's silly, but it also is not. Depends upon the person, I guess, but to some strength equals power and masculinity which equals the pecking order for sexual activity (if human action is dependent upon sex and reproduction) which equals the quality and quantity of breeding. We are all trying to become a lifeguard in the real and metaphysical gene pool of our life . . . Maybe. Some of us don't get too worked up about it.
It's best not to over analyze such things, though--I've learned that much over the years--just see them simply for what they are: Yow.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Dogs of Grayton Beach

There were plenty of animals in Grayton: snakes, lizards, butterflies and roaches and other myriad insects, alligators (when I lived in the trailer on the main drag of town, I rode my bike out of my gravel lot one day and there was this huge bull gator crossing right in front of me), frogs, toads, turtles, salt and fresh water fish, scallops and oysters, squirrels and mice, there were raccoons and opossums and armadillos, deer, many birds of many sizes, and there were feral cats, abandoned cats, house cats and there were dogs.
Dogs in Grayton Beach never had leashes. They usually had collars and they all belonged to someone and everyone in the small town knew what dog belonged to who. Randall had two dogs: Pogo and Lemmy. Pogo was small, older, and probably the most intelligent dog in town; Lemmy was a young lab pup, a bit dumb but cute (which is often a hallmark for success in this country). But Pogo wandered the town, never getting in any trouble, a sweet smart dog, calm, never straying too far. Despite his size--little stocky body on short legs--no other dog bothered Pogo much and there were much bigger dogs around; a lot of hunting dogs, mostly males, who wandered the sand streets and gnarled treed yards, the woods along the dark lakes and the state park dunes west of town. Van--Mr. Butler's son--had such a dog. It was a big reddish Chesapeake Bay Retriever named Chester. I once tried to have a tug of war with that dog, the rope in both our mouths, and he almost pulled my gums out.
When I lived in the stilt house our roommate, Jeff, had a good dog: Pistachio. Pistachio was a blonde lab, maybe a little mix in him. He loved to wander (though went to work with Jeff most days) and was fascinated with fish, especially washed-up-to-shore stinky squalid dead fish. In the fall, in October of 1985, of my first year in Grayton, as the weather cooled and tourists dwindled and business at the Paradise Cafe slowed, I'd go off by myself for long walks into the dunes or into the woods beyond the dunes. Except I wasn't always by myself, because if he was around, Pistachio would come with me.
I'd always been a cat person. My family had our share of dogs when I grew up, though always for short durations, but we always had cats--from kitten to grave--and I liked cats and I related to cats. So, having a buddy dog come along with me on my quite solitude walks around the woods was charming, interesting, different to me. Pistachio would go off, disappear, but I'd hear him, then he'd find me, hang with me for a while as I progressed on and off trails, then he'd disappear again. One time, I remember, I climbed a big pine, just to see the land from up high. Pistachio did not like it--he barked and barked until I came down. He was a good dog.
But my favorite dog was Butch. Butch was a scrappy little creature, not much bigger than a cat. He was straw yellow with long scruffy fur and he wandered everywhere around town by himself. "Oh, there's Butch," people would say, so that's how I knew his name. I did not know who he belonged to. Butch did not appear to get along with other dogs--or rather--other dogs did not seem to accept him in their various groupings. Butch was an outcast. He was a loner. Still, he was omnipresent in town, watching and not participating, always on the cusp of human activity. You could pet him, but could never tell if he enjoyed being pet. He was funny looking and I liked him. It wasn't until later someone (Jeff, I think) pointed out his owner to me. It was a man I'd seen around, a man who had a stiff gait and walked a lot. Turned out the man had a serious injury--his back had been broken in a car accident, I think--he wore a brace and lived in Grayton while he convalesced. He fished a lot, but not for anything too big. I never talked to this man, though by all accounts he was a nice guy. And so to me--to Brock and Matt and Roger and maybe a few others--he was Mr. Butch. "Oh, I saw Mr. Butch headed down to the water today," we'd say. "Mr. Butch caught some tilefish." Stuff like that. And the next year, Mr. Butch's teenage son came to Grayton--Mr. Butch was well and out of town most of the time--and he even worked at the Paradise for a spell. 
I don't recall his name, because we simply knew him as Butch's Boy.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A Morning With The Terminator: Grayton Beach 1985

 The Terminator was a car. It was a black-green huge 4-door Plymouth Fury that had changed hands of ownership so many time it became simply the communal car for our group in Grayton. It think it was Bob's and he had given it to Brad and Brad had given it to Roger and then Roger took off with Matt and he gave it to Holly and Holly moved into Skip's while he was in Hawaii and she gave it to me to use but it was appropriated by Tommy and then appropriated for anyone who needed a car at any time, though it was usually parked at our sandy stilt house in "New" Grayton. The car was often hard to start and was deemed unsafe due to some axel or transmission problem, but once it got going it seemed solid enough, ran hard and strong and ugly. I don't know who named it The Terminator, but the name fit.
One day, not long before I (and Brock) left Garyton Beach (I came back in just a few months, Brock never did), Brock and I started drinking at 8am. We had some breakfast beers, then a breakfast toke, and decided a drive would be nice. So we went over to Tommy and Ron's trailer on the beach. We knew Tommy would come along because we had beer and smoke. Tommy loved him some beer and smoke. And so he did--Ron came along too, at least at first--and the four of us drove up to the bay, to Eden Gardens park, powering the big car on the skinny roads under the weeping woods, the limegreen pines, the giant oaks umbrellaed against a humid sky, Spanish moss thick in their branches like the skeletons of monkeys. We parked at the park--hardly anyone was around, hardly anyone was around in the late fall in south Walton County Florida in those days--and there were even bigger oaks, there was an old Plantation House and flowers and long lawns under those oaks. We got out, looked at the trees, the inlet and wide bay, the birds and gators in that bay (Choctawhatchee Bay), then we smoked and drank and tossed a frisbee around on the open lawns. Then Tommy wanted to go swimming. He wanted to go to a pool that belonged to one of the seaside condo buildings east of Grayton, east of Seaside and Seagrove.
So off we went again, more intoxicated in a dangerous car, down the southern two-lanes in the sun to the tall condo where we park in the lot--no one around--and head to their pool that overlooked the beach and we swam. Drank some more. The beach--that whole coast in that county--was ours. Then Ron wanted to go home. So we headed back to Grayton Beach in The Terminator, Brock and I ready to call it a morning. But Tommy had other ideas.
Tommy's first idea was to get more beer. Of course. So we got his cooler and, me driving, made a beer run to Blue Mountain Grocery, Red's place, and then came back with Tommy telling to drive up a ways from the blinking yellow light and onto this dirt path into the woods. Between the beach and the highway near the bay there were only woods--St. Joe paper company land filled with planted pines and red-sandy paths and undergrowth. So, we toddled on the bouncy dirt path until we came to a huge clearing, a sunny hollow in the man-made forest. The three of us were squinched in the front bench seat of The terminator, stoned drunk and drinking beer, and I drive off seni-fast on the rough and loose land, red clay soil dried oranger than orange peels, stubby plants and skinny saplings, dust finer then hair. I bounce jounce us along, the monster car ramming along, knocking down brushy bushes and then saplings whose branches almost come through the windshield. But The Terminator wont be stopped, Brock getting a kick out of it, Tommy getting a kick out of anything to do with cars and speed and beer and smoke. Then, finally, I get the car stuck in a soft orange pool of dirt. And I can't get it out.
The day is hot. The windows have been down and we are covered with the silky impossible-redorange dust. And Tommy says, "Let me try."
So, Brock and I push, drunk-stoned-happy, as Tommy guns the Plymouth and pops it out of the sand trap dirt, heaves forward and spind the car around and comes back to get us. We hop in, back in the front seat (no seatbelts, we never wore belts back then... Tommy and I one night took The terminator at 100 miler per down little Highway 30-A along the beach and when I look back at that now I think: stupid stupid stupid). And as we looked out the winshield at the bleak landscape, Tommy gunning the engine, I tell Brock: "You better hang on tight, because Tommy'll make this thing go." I could see the devil smile on Tommy's face--a Southern-Boy-Moonshine-Runner face--and with a white knuckle grip on the dash we zoomed off. He tore that landscape up, bopping and popping, all four wheels off the ground at time, fishtailing like an icthyologist, our heads bumping the ceiling, Brock smiling while yelling, "We're gonna be killed" while also trying to keep the beer in our mouths because we still drank beer as Tommy flashed us around, knocked things down, brushed against trunks of trees, crashing through trail-less land until finally slopping through a screen of vine and branches and hitting solid blacktop once again. Back on the road. Empty road. But then across and into the woods on the other side.
And so it went on, this daredevil devil driving, timing our beer drinking with the jolts of the car, until we hit another soft spot and The Terminator stalls up big time. Not just stuck, but dead in the dust.
"Damn it, Tommy. Where are we?" I asked. We were in the middle of nowhere with no one but us. Yet, we laughed. Yes, we could walk out and back home, but it was hot and we were intoxicated and Tommy would probably insist we take the cooler of dwindling beer with us. But Tommy worked his magic with gearshift and ignition and accelerator  and The Terminator was purring again and we're off agin bumping and grinding and getting stuck and unstuck and finally back to the highway for good and home to Grayton Beach where we park and walk to the good bluegreen Gulf of Mexico for a dip, washing off the dust of a wild morning.

I was a late bloomer. When I had that breakfast of beer, dope, driving and destruction, I was in my mid-twenties. But I'd spent my high school years, really until I was twenty, in a dour, stoic stasis-ish existence. So, I did a lot of dumb stuff later in life. But that's what I did that day, no-good knucklehead young man stuff. And I know, I know that others have been married and had kids by that age, others were becoming doctors or making their first million by then. Good god, men have ruled empires at that age. And yet, others are still pining away for something, still living their life small and maybe frightened. So, I'm satisfied with such nonsense. I was happy as a dozen clams back then.
Really, sometimes, what more can you ask for?

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Myopic & Self-Indulgent History #1

I write a lot about places because I see my life in terms of places. More than dates or age, I think of a city or a state, a country sometimes, and match myself, who I was, am, what I did and what I thought with that location. Part of the reason for this is that, as a child and adolescent, I moved a lot. My father worked for the VA, the federal gov't's Veterans Administration, where he was a psychologist and then Chief of Staff (administrator) and when he was promoted we'd pack up and go. I didn't move as much as, say, a military family might, but compared to some, we moved enough. I think of my second daughter, who is now fifteen, and she has friends that she's known since she was three. Three! I don't know what that's like.
So, I have four hometowns: Sioux Falls, South Dakota (my birth town), then Vancouver, Washington (my favorite town), Johnson City, Tennessee (also lived in Jonesborough for a year--both towns last on my list of importance) and then Des Moines, Iowa (my adopted hometown).
Then there's Iowa City. It's a place in its own category of importance: my college town, my town of reaching independence, of new friends, loves and plain old fun.
Then there are places where I lived as an adult. Some of them I was there for years, some for maybe but three months. But they are places where I worked and wandered, where I had relationships and felt a part of the community, have an intimate understanding and affection for. So, that would be Santa Fe NM, Los Angeles CA, Grayton Beach FL, Seattle WA, Champaign IL, Missoula MT, Fort Lauderdale FL.
And then there are the places I traveled to or through, spent invested time in and feel connected to: New York NY, Key West FL, Chicago IL, maybe New Orleans.
There are also places I've traveled to or visited that carry meaning, places more numerous than I can think of right now but includes state parks, National Parks and National Forests, campgrounds or stretches of highway, small towns and cities all around the country.
I have not been a big international traveler--though wish I had been, wish I was. I have spent time in Montreal and western Canada, a long trip into Mexico by myself and a few border crossings, a trip to Sweden and looks like I'm going down to the BVI's soon. I currently live in a place where there are many people from many countries, where friends travel and have traveled much further, wider and wilder than I ever have or ever will. So I know my experiences--geographically and adventure-wise--are small potatoes. But, really, it's the relating of the experience, the emotion and understanding of it, that lends it gravity, not just the location or drama of action.
Look at the poet Emily Dickinson--a virtual recluse who wrote wonderful, insightful work, often drawing on the small and limited to make universal points. Take a writer like Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings who wrote about the life and doings of rural central Florida. It was her ability to see, depict, frame this place and its people that made her work meaningful to readers worldwide. There is evidence of this in all types of art and life--from the painting of a smile to tribal dance to the capture of light in photographs, and more, that transcend the simplicity of their subjects. In a way, Darwin was about looking at the miniscule in order to understand the big picture.
This is but a little blog and I'm not trying to put myself in anyone's company. I am but trying to make a comparable point. No doubt--if anyone visits this site, if anyone reads it and visits more than once--many will view this as self-indulgent, will mock it as banal, trite, boring. Others will see it as self-therapy or self-myth-making. Hopefully some will find it of passing interest, a scattershot look at one person's experiences, small and large, with its own cast of characters, moral and physical boundaries and lessons learned. And they would all be correct in their views . . . What I do is what I do on these pages and I'm still figuring out the depth and presentation of these personal vignettes. I don't want to know, precisely, why I'm doing it. I just want to do it and anyone who wants to come along for the ride, please, grab a seat. I'll slide over and drive.