Monday, July 27, 2009

My Pet Salamander: Vancouver 1965

Okay, I don't remember what exact year it was that I had a pet salamander, but I did have one. I mean, we had a lot of pets when we lived in Vancouver: three cats--Spunky (who ran away) Orange cat (whose tail was kinked from getting shut in a sliding door) Witty (who was our 1st Siamese cat and who we got in the stinky paper mill town of Camus and who went to Tennessee and then Iowa with us)--a rabbit--Maximilian (who belonged to oldest brother)--hamsters (various names I'd never be able to recall)--one dog (a black puppy who my father accidently ran over)--turtles (those dime-store ones that would escape their turtle pond, disappear only to be found months later alive or dead)--other creatures, no doubt, and then, my salamander. It was a red salamander.
I suppose my salamander had a name, but I can't recall it. I kept it in a coffee can with some water and rocks, as best I can recall, or maybe I kept it in one of the old turtle pens--those clear plastic dishes with a clear plastic island in the middle where a little plastic palm tree stuck up. But I can't imagine I kept it in a turtle pen because, if turtles could escape from those, then a salamander would have no compunction about making a break for it. And I also don't recall exactly how I got him (her?) in the first place.
To the best of my memory, I remember stopping after school at some spot--a creek or pond--where salamanders and frogs and such were. Some friend of mine would go there with me and we'd try to catch them, and did catch them. But this is also a foggy recollection, as I can't seem to place this stream or pond in with my neighborhood or to-and-from-school walk. Perhaps I captured it on some trip or picnic with my family. I don't know. I just know that I did catch it and did take it home and did keep it for a while as a pet.
But the thing was, I knew it was a bad idea. I loved slippery and strange creatures--amphibians and reptiles especially--yet at that age (seven or eight) I also understood that these were wild animals, that captivity was simply that: an unnatural prison term. And this weighed on my little boy brain. I mean, I wanted to keep my salamander but I also had pangs of higher consciousness, knew that the salamander did not want to be kept by me. So at times, I'd take the amphibian outside to play. I'd let it loose in my back yard, but also keep a tight watch on it. Maybe, in some ways, I'd hope that it would escape, that it would free itself and then my little moral conundrum would be solved, but of course, I never took my eye off it long enough for it to be free of me. The salamander was like a toy, one that the child (me) was on the cusp of outgrowing, a toy that the child (again, me) still enjoyed at times but also saw as childish or beneath the child's (you get the idea) new level of maturity. So, one day I decided to put away my childish thing.
My father had a lot of plants--flowering bushes, hedges, young trees that he had planted. Each one of these new plants (our house had been brand new, without any real plants or trees [save the big maple in back], not even grass in the yard) each one had a deeply cut perfect circle like a basin into which it had been planted. This was how Father planted his plants, in a deep circle so that he could fill this circle up with water and that water would sit for a while like a muddy pool. And so, one weekend day, I took my coffee can with my red salamander in it out to the back yard where my father was doing his usual heavy watering of his young plants. And I took out my salamander to play with it as I had done many times, but this time I decided I'd let it go for a swim. And I put it into the muddy pool beneath some bush or another and I watched it go in and under and disappear from sight and I did not try to reach in there and find it.
I let it go.
I knew what I was doing, but still--somewhere in my boy brain--pretended that I was only playing with it, not letting it escape. A strange dichotomy of thought. I was setting it free while telling myself I was not setting it free.
Oh, I moped around about it all the rest of that day, even days, weeks, months, maybe years, later. I loved salamanders and such. I even went looking for it, though I knew it wouldn't be there. But I checked that black dirt numerous times, just in case the amphibian was still there. And yes, I think even then I knew that I had not let it go in the best of places. There was no stream or pond close to our house, so I doubt the red salamander survived.
But maybe it did. It survived a life in the coffee can, it survived trips in my pocket, trips to the back yard. It survived being handled by me and other curious kids. So maybe it had the requisite chutzpa to climb out of the circular muddy pool after the water had drained, climb out and traverse the grassy yard, make it through the tangle of bushes and into the open field, past new-house construction, cross the streets, maybe a highway, and find a fresh source of free-flowing water in that urban area of the Great Pacific Northwest.
Yes indeed. I'm sure it did. My pet salamander still lives to this day.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Myopic And Self Indulgent History #4

Last week I was in Wakulla County. In Florida. I stayed at a place triangulated between Medart and Crawfordville and St. Marks. It was near Panacea and Spring Creek and Sopchoppy. And I visited all those places. And I drove over to Apalachicola. And it was interesting. Wakulla County is mostly National Forest and National Wildlife Refuge and State Forest and State Park. The towns are small, strange, honest and good.
How much longer will that last?
I still love the panhandle of Florida. I like the people. Even though my personal beliefs and politics don't quite jibe with the area, I'm still drawn to it. I always thought I'd end up out west--either the Pacific Northwest: Washington or Oregon; or somewhere in the Mountain West: Montana, Idaho; maybe even the Southwest because of New Mexico . . . But I haven't ended up in those places. And I'm still drawn to the South. I don't know why, exactly. I'll probably have the misfortune to die and be buried in Ohio or something.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Floundering: Grayton Beach 1985

When I first got to Grayton Beach--from Los Angeles--I needed a job. The Paradise Cafe was the only business in the little town and they didn't need anyone at that time. So, I got a job closer to Destin, west of Grayton and in Okaloosa County, not Walton. Actually, it was in a place called San Destin, some newish resort with golf courses, hotels, condos, convention rooms and such. At first I was a banquet waiter. And, I was not a very good banquet waiter. So my boss--I don't recall his name, but he was some kind of weaselly guy (though now I'd no doubt judge him more fairly) who ran us around and was the one who decided I didn't make much of a banquet waiter--my boss switched me to a set up man.
Being a set-up man wasn't so bad. I got convention rooms ready, vacuuming, putting up tables, the table cloths and glasses, putting out chairs and pitchers of water, doing whatever needed to be done to, of course, set the event up. It was physical sometimes, other times it was just little stuff. So, I did that. And sometimes I'd work at night.
Now, San Destin--like everywhere else along that stretch of Florida's panhandle--was a beautiful spot. It was a big place, with a hotel and places along the white sand beach, then homes and convention centers stretching way back to the bay. Nice. Well, this one night I was working an event along the bay side. It was about over and I was waiting around to do what I did--un-set-up, I guess--and I was looking out at the black bay waters, calm and quiet, flat and shiny, and then along came these two old guys in a tiny boat. There was no motor on the boat. One guy was poling the skiff, poling it along very close to shore, and the other guy had an electric lantern that he was shining into the shallow waters. The other guy also had a trident. I'm serious, he held AN ACTUAL TRIDENT. And what they were doing, I found out later, was floundering. They were slipping along quietly in the bay, shining for flounder down in the muck, and then they'd spear it with the trident.
Cool. (Unless you're a flounder.)
But it wasn't just that. It was that here I was, working this night gig where the rich (or wealthy close to rich, or the corporate types) were being feted at this fancy resort and here were the old local guys just traipsing on through, sticking flounders in the bay. It was a sign of things to come, as that whole beachfront--from Escambia and Santa Rosa County to Okaloosa to Walton and beyond--has become more of a playground for the wealthy than a place for the locals who had been born there. I'm not sure they even tolerate floundering anymore. I saw it happening in the years that I lived there and have seen the current evidence from a recent return visit. In my time, I saw first hand the local guys being turned away at the new restaurants and bars (even some old ones) and being priced out of property and rentals. Sure, some of them probably made some nice money by selling (if they owned a place or land), but then what? You go somewhere else and do your floundering and crabbing and such? And then that place changes and pushes you out and soon there is no coastline left.
Ah. Maybe I'm wrong.
But I do recall, after I had left Grayton for the second time and came back for the third time, I had a job painting condos out towards Destin. After a day of work, I stopped in the new Winn-Dixie store to grab a meal from the deli. And who was behind the deli counter, asking me what I'd like, sir? It was my old boss from San Destin. The weaselly one. 

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Creek: Johnson City 1969

Where we lived, just outside of town along old Antioch Road, there was a scattering of new houses among woods and farms and pastures and empty spaces for yet-to-be-built houses. Our house was on one side of Antioch, along a street that was a hill that rose steeply and then curved and then came to an end. Along the street were the houses--all pretty new--but where the developer or contractor had left a lot of the trees: walnuts and hickories and maples. Our house--a new split-level--was on the hill, maybe the third house up on the left. Further up, where the hill flattened out and if you did not take the curve, there was another dead-end that ran into some trees and then a wide pasture and in the pasture was junked cars and washing machines and such. There was also a cave there, small and down in a natural sink in the land--the cave was narrow and low, dark, its small entrance framed by rock--and it always had cold air flowing out of it (we explored the cave a little, but it was too small, unlit, spooky). A family lived in a trailer on that land, of which we knew one girl, but never knew her that well. Directly behind our house was a farmer's field, often planted with tobacco and in the field was a classic falling-down gray-wooded tobacco shed where you could see the shadowed bunches of the plant hanging upside down to dry . . . On the other side of Antioch, there was more land, more hills and only a distant scattering of houses. The lots on that side didn't have many trees, but there were also great swaths of untouched woods that we kids--my brothers and sister, the neighborhood gang--often explored and goofed around in.
But this isn't about all of that. This is about The Creek.
The Creek was on the other side of Antioch, along a flat stretch of un-housed land before the big hills and woods started. The creek came down from some fenced pasture land to the right (I'll call it from the east, though I don't recall the true directions), ran small and rilly over some rocks, then flattened and widened out along grassy and willowy banks, went under a small flat bridge (which was the street that ran on both sides of Antioch) then continued on westward, narrowing again and disappearing into a thicket of trees. We explored the east and west distances of the creek. Upstream--the east--the waters came down a hill and through the said pastureland; you had to cross over a barbwire fence and into a grassy expanse tufted with weeds where dairy cows roamed. The cows drank from the creek there and--much to our dismay, since we played in it downstream--pissed and shat in it there. We never explored past the cows and their pasture. Downstream--the west--The Creek became mysterious and dark; the trees grew thick and bushy and came right up to the banks, here the water deepened a little, narrowed and curved, but it came out into a field without domesticated animals and then--if I remember correctly--became a bit marshy, its waters still and lost in tall grasses and weeds, dissipating and disappearing into parts unknown. But the heart of The Creek--and to us, it simply was The Creek, we had no other name for it--the heart of it was the flat land along the street with the bridge dividing it.
The Creek was very important to us.
It was a place to meet up at, a place to play, to get wet, to hunt down crayfish and tadpoles and minnows and all sorts of strange insects. There were many water striders there (and when's the last time you saw a water strider?), but also beetles and mud-dauber wasps and other bees, dragon flies and butterflies and praying mantis', worms and spiders and pill bugs galore. There were birds in the field and in the air--don't recall them all, but there were a lot of bullbats (nighthawks) doing their daredevil work above us as we played, sparrows, blackbirds, jays, buzzards and flocks of what were probably just starlings, there were some water birds as well. Often, there were bats at night. The Creek was a place for us to explore physically but also imaginatively--how many scenarios and games and fantasies we invented while goofing around its banks or in its waters can not be counted or recalled. We had a game where we'd score points for the creatures we could catch--more points were alloted for things such as a minnow or water strider, due to the difficulty in actually catching one, more points for dangerous things like wasps or dragonflies, whereas crayfish (of which there were plenty) and tadpoles were low scorers. Unfortunately, the things we caught were more often than not also killed. Such is the nature of humans--kill the very things you loved about a place.
I also spent a lot of time alone at The Creek.
It was in Tennessee--in that open and wooded land that served as our neighborhood--that I discovered the great joy of solitude. Solitude and nature. I didn't understand it as such at the time, but I found that I liked going out alone and wandering and thinking and looking at the different areas where animals and plants were, for the most part, unbothered. I recall that, alongside The Creek, on its north side, there was a false creek, or where the creek used to run. This was a sunken ditch of now-dry land, but it was hard to see it because it was overgrown with willow and bramble and small trees which grew over the false/former creek, turning it into a tunnel. In the summer it was pretty much impenetrable, but in the winter--when the surrounding thicket had lost its leaves--you could hop down in there and hunch and walk along the old creek bed, hidden from the outside world. I did this many times, fascinated. And when it snowed, the thick cache of tree branches and vine, the weave of dormant willow and dead stringy bramble, would catch the snow on top of it and you would find yourself walking a hidden snow tunnel.
It didn't snow that much in Tennessee--winters are very mild by, say, South Dakota standards--but I remember a lot of my alone time along The Creek as being during winter with snow on the ground. The fact that we had moved to Johnson City from the even milder climate of the coastal Pacific Northwest probably added to my remembrance and enjoyment of the snow. But be it any time on the year, I--we--enjoyed what The Creek had to offer. And--in the realm of childhood--it offered much. Much.
We moved away from Tennessee in the late fall of 1970. Went to Des Moines--where that first winter was a shock to the system. I never returned to our Tennessee 'neighborhood' until the late spring or early summer of 1988. Fru and I took a drive down from Champaign. I was able to find Antioch Road, find our old house and the place I had lived. Yes, yes, it was all quite different. I think I've written briefly about this before, but the land across the road was all built up. It was full of houses and green green lawns--I saw a man mowing, kids on swing sets, dogs and cats and cars and trucks and all the accoutrements of suburban living. And The Creek? . . . It wasn't even there.
The Creek had been "disappeared" (like some perceived enemy-of-the-state from a South American nation). Perhaps it ran underground through metal drainage pipes or concrete culvert-tunnels, or perhaps it was simply filled in with dirt and allowed to seep elsewhere. I did not see it. But I knew where it was supposed to be: it was right where I saw that man, a young family man in polo shirt and shorts and tennis shoes, mowing his bright green flawless yard of common grass.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Don: Champaign 1988

There's a lot of people I have not written about and one of them is Don. When I first met Fru, she was in Champaign, Illinois and lived in a duplex on Ivy Court. She had just broken up with a long time boyfriend (fiance at one point) and had taken a roommate, who was Don. Don worked at the same bank as Fru. So, in 1988, when I moved from Florida to Champaign to live with Fru, Don lived with us--or, I with them. Don was--still is--Fru's best friend, I think. There was no romantic attachment between them because Don is gay. Now, this was '88, and not only was it a little unusual for a guy to come move in with a household already containing a man and a woman, but the fact that one of them was gay was--I suppose--rather strange. 
Fru's grandmother asked, when I moved up, "But what about Don?", thinking that he and Fru were linked. And this reaction was due to the fact that Don kept his sexuality hidden to most people. Unfortunately, even in the late 80's, he felt a need to do that, mainly for professional reasons. Champaign, though a college town, a town I like, is a small town. Conservative for the most part. Surrounded by corn and soybean farmers and such. I think Fru (and I)--and of course those in the semi-hidden gay community there--were the only ones he had told. So, I lived with Fru, stayed in her room, and Don had the other room. Fru cleaned most of the house, Don cleaned the bathroom, I did most of the cooking. Fru's cat, M.R., lived there too. I never thought much about the whole arrangement. (My oldest brother had 'come out' prior to this, later my sister--though that was a non-issue with me, too; I didn't give a damn what a person's sexuality was.)
And Don was (is) a good guy, became a good friend. He was (is) Fru's confidant. He helped me, indirectly, to understand gay people's predicaments in this world, I think. I met his non-straight friends and they were all very nice people. And Don has been close to us all these years.
Eventually, he got out of Champaign. He moved to Chicago, where he no longer had to hide, and he has flourished there (with a few ups and downs). Don's a Chicago guy. Very involved in the politics and welfare of his community (he met Barack Obama) and local theatre (he knows Edward Albee). Still, I'm not sure the people who knew him in Champaign know that he's gay.
So, I guess it's kind of interesting that we all lived together in a town like Champaign, lived serenely and well. But, really, I'm sorry to concentrate on the singular fact of his sexuality. It's not how I view him or define him (despite this post). He's a friend, he's close to Fru and family. That's Don. I don't have much else to say, because--though he's led and leads an interesting life--he's just simply that: my friend.