Rainbow Man: An Autobiography
The following short autobiographical sketch contains few extraordinary revelations about the character and life of the author but is written to illustrate the mundane and common nature of an ordinary childhood and commonly misspent youth. The purpose of this account of my life is to give people a better idea of who I am, where I come from, and where I have been in life. I have not led a sequestered life but neither have I been subjected to trauma or abuse as a child. I have included rather personal information as well not with intent to shock but rather in an attempt to be honest. The only important aspect the author might draw from this account is the general absence of negative experiences and influences. Infer from this if you will the capacity of much or even all of humanity to replicate the extraordinary mystical journey in life if one is merely afforded the blessings of a similar safe and secure beginning and a work ethic of self reliance and responsibility to oneself, other human beings, and an identification with the natural world. It was my intention not to draw attention to myself in as much as this exercise is about the world and its people and not one individual personality. The purpose of my journey through intense human suffering and spiritual rebirth has been to avoid a looming catastrophe of the physical and spiritual life of the world falling into ruin. Any personal power I have earned in my journey was bestowed upon me with a purpose greater than myself. On further reflection it has become clear that my individual personality will become the focus of attention and not the journey I have taken, the gifts that I possess, or the changes that must be implemented to avoid the catastrophe of which I speak. I am delivering a message that must be heard and this message will be painful to many and unacceptable to some. In order not to listen to the unpleasant truth it will be necessary to focus upon the messenger and by making the focus of attention my individual failures and transgressions it will be possible to discredit and destroy me as a public person and therefore to destroy the message without directly confronting it. The truth is every human being is imperfect, weak, and vulnerable to destruction. With this in mind I will endeavor to tell you about myself, where I come from, the journey I have been on, and perhaps where we are going.
I was born in Austin, Texas in 1962. My parents were two 20 year old college students from small towns in Texas, Lonnie Ray Thomas and Sandra Sue Asman who were the first in their families to go off and attend college. My Dad was born in a very small town in the Texas Panhandle in 1941. Grandfather taught himself tax law and opened a tax business and grandmother opened a beauty parlor. They were fairly prominent members of the small community and Lonnie’s father would eventually become mayor. Dad was an only child who had an illness at the age of five (the measles) that permanently damaged his hearing. Lonnie played basketball and was a science prodigy in high school and went to Austin to study chemistry. He had difficulty in school because he came from a small town with limited educational opportunity. He only achieved a four year college degree but he possessed a mind capable of much more. It is my opinion he felt thwarted in life because of this and feels like an outsider even though he accomplished many incredible things in his work life. He invented many manufacturing processes and products in materials technology such as plastics and fuels and related products. Because he worked for large companies he did not retain any of these patents and though the products made millions of dollars he was paid a modest salary. Later he practically invented the field of process analyzers, giant complex machines that monitor industrial processes in huge plants that make plastics, fertilizers, and other essential products. He eventually bought a company that makes these house sized machines and became fairly successful. His coworkers gave him the nickname of Leonardo as in Leonardo Da Vinci because of his ability to immediately sketch out inventions almost at will.
My mom had a more difficult childhood than my dad. She was born in the Texas hill country in the town of Seguin in 1942. Her mother got divorced when mom was only an infant and remarried very quickly. Grandmother was a victim of childhood emotional and sexual abuse by her father who was physically and emotionally destroyed by chemical warfare in WWI and became an alcoholic. Grandmother was adopted by her aunt and she was emotionally unstable at various times in her life and had once been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. When she was not under stress she seemed quite normal and only in times of stress did she exhibit her emotional instability. Mom was lucky because her stepfather was an exceptional man who raised her with great love and care. Papa taught English to sixth graders and later became a principal and then a school superintendent. He always read for pleasure and as an escape and he encouraged her to read. When the local librarian told him she was reading questionable books as a young child he told her to allow mom to read any book in the library she wished. Sandy went on to read every book in the library and every book she could get her hands on. She played tennis and played the flute in band and went to Austin to study nursing at Brackenridge Hospital.
I was born in Austin, Texas in 1962, on February 13th at Brackenridge Hospital. I have no memory of my first home which was an apartment complex that was demolished to make way for the LBJ library. My mom finished her nursing degree and my father completed his chemistry degree and then the family moved to Houston, Texas where he worked for Phillips Petroleum. Strangely enough I remember driving into Houston, sitting in the back seat watching the green freeway signs passing overhead. I think I was two years old. We lived in another apartment complex and my parents soon bought a day care called the Koover Kiddy College from the aging owner. My mom ran the pre-school which I attended at an early age, perhaps as young as two, certainly by three. My early memories are of playing cowboys and Indians in my elaborate cowboy costume and navigating the treacherous iron play ground equipment, the pre-school lessons and the afternoon naps. The other kids were all older than me but since my parents owned the school I pretty much did what I wanted within reason. I remember one day some workmen cut down a tree limb on the property that had a birds nest full of baby birds calling loudly from inside the tree limb. At home I went out at night with a card board box and collected the toads that emerged to call to each other. I left them in the box in the bathroom where they quickly dried out. I came down with a case of warts on my fingers and eventually my parents talked me out of early field work in biology. One time I spotted an insect referred to as a walking stick and as I stared hard at my first specimen from about four feet away it spit a noxious liquid into my eye and scared the heck out of me. My dad bought a hand crank ice cream maker and I helped him add ice and milk and turn the handle to make ice cream. At night my mom took me to the pool when no one else was around and taught me how to swim at a very early age, I imagine it was so I wouldn’t drown. I was never afraid of the water and spent much of the rest of my childhood at the local swimming pool, or floating down the Guadalupe River in an inner tube or swimming and skiing on lakes. I was always a deep brown in the summer with blond to brown hair. At the apartment I usually went swimming in the evening because during the day the pool was often crowded with rowdy intoxicated adults. I went to see the movie Bambi when I was 2 and a half years old and when Bambi’s parent was killed I ran out of the theater packed with kids into the lobby and returned to see the rest of the movie after I calmed down. We had bought two parakeets as pets in the apartment but they were loud and obnoxious due to their early mistreatment so we kept them in the bathroom next to a cubist painting of a human face that I didn’t like too much either. I remember that I often bumped my head against furniture like the table and counter. As I ran around the apartment my left forehead often struck the corner of these objects. Once I went into my parent’s closet and climbed into my dad’s golf bag. My arms were tucked in with only my head out of the bag when it tipped forward on its wheels and slowly pushed the closet door open. I could see what was about to happen but was helpless to get out of the bag. The floor came up to meet me and my head bounced three times on the concrete floor that had a carpet but no pad. The loud noise and my cries brought my parents to the rescue. In retrospect I seemed to hit my forehead so often it seems strange but I later grew out of the tendency. Physical clumsiness is often but not always a sign of physical abuse. It is pure speculation but I think it is possible that the older woman who baby sat me while my mom was in nursing school may have struck me on the head. I have never been physically clumsy since so perhaps it was just a phase of growing up. When I was three an older girl who was five or six struck me viciously across the back with a whip while we were playing in the apartment complex. I cried all through diner and after I ate I went out in search of her with a group of friends and bystanders who saw the initial assault. I cornered her with a broom in my hand and the whole crowd of children called out for me to strike her but I only tapped her moderately with the straw end of the broom and went home. A few times I ventured into my dad’s closet again and found his shotgun and was entranced by the danger and power it represented but fortunately there were no shells around so I never test fired it in the house. My parents bought a small yellow van as a miniature school bus to transport the kids on field trips and drive them home. In the beginning it didn’t have any seats in it at all except for the two seats in front. I sat on a milk crate in the back. My mom had two younger brothers, Mike and Andy. Mike joined the Marines at 17 to get away from home and was sent to Vietnam in 1966. He came home on leave and I was told he was coming to visit us. I was four by then and Mike was a mythical figure in my eyes, in a way he was like a God to me, perhaps the only one I ever had. I ran around the school yard all afternoon telling my play mates that my uncle Mike was coming. It was probably as excited as I had ever been in my life about anything. He appeared like a Greek God fresh from the free fire zone of Da Nang sporting muscles on a tanned 6’2” frame and a few in country tattoos. He picked me up and down with one arm gingerly over his head and I squealed with delight. Later that week we were sitting in the back of the school van and my Dad had to hit the brakes to avoid an accident. There were no seats in the back and just as I began to go airborne Mike reached across the van and grabbed the back of my jeans and saved me from serious injury. I remember walking into his room where he was sleeping and he rolled out of his bunk and reached under his pillow for the .45 that wasn’t there. My mom was worried about him when he left because he had written her about what happened to him in Vietnam. He had been assigned embassy duty but demanded and eventually got sent overseas to fight. He wrote to my mom that his first week there he was on guard duty with his best buddy from basic training in a nearby foxhole with another Marine. Two Vietnamese kids he described as being about 7-8 years old sold them cokes from a cooler. They over paid the kids to reward them for their entrepreneurial spirit and as they were about to leave one of them dropped a grenade in his buddies foxhole and killed both Marines instantly. I thought about it many years later and realized that my 18 year old uncle and the GI with him probably shot both of the boys after they killed his best friend. It helped me to understand the intense pain Mike felt and the many years he battled with drug and alcohol addiction before he died from the affects of Agent Orange thirty years later. He was the only God like figure I ever looked up to, to the point of hero worship. My mom told me she got these letters from him and went to ask help and advice from a church pastor but he took the attitude that Mike had done this to himself and kind of deserved what he got. At the age of 19 she was urged to confess in front of the entire congregation of a church that she and my father had been committing the sin of sex before marriage. They were both still virgins and there was nothing to confess but this experience among others made her change her mind about organized religion. She never looked at organized religion quite the same and never tried to indoctrinate me in religious beliefs. She never told me that there was no God, but she did say that more people had been killed in wars in the name of God than for any other reason. In Kindergarten I attended Sunday school but I never got in the habit of attending church. I felt neither positively nor negatively about religion but I was rather wary of organized religion as I grew older, especially when they asked for money. In second grade we would pledge allegiance to the flag and then we would have a school prayer. The class prayer part made me feel strange by fourth grade since even then I felt like I was being forced to participate in something that I would not have done freely. Occasionally I would join other families who invited me to church but neither of my parents attended regularly. I remember watching the TV show Star Trek at the age of three or four. My mom would let me watch it right before I had to go to sleep. When the other kids bought GI Joe dolls to play with I bought a doll called Major Matt Mason, in effect a captain Kirk doll, the lead character in Star Trek. We moved into a house in Pasadena, Texas near the Houston ship channel, the most heavily concentrated petrochemical industry area in the world. I now had a back yard and we got a dog, a boxer named Duke who I rode around on like a horse. We were inseparable but one day we came home and my dog had been stolen and I’m not quite sure I was ever the same. My early childhood was quite idyllic really, I would watch Saturday morning cartoons on TV and pester my parents to take me to the Play House Toys toy store to buy what I had seen advertised. After 2-3 days of constant haranguing they usually capitulated until finally my mother put her foot down and I quit using that tactic. I wanted for nothing, especially affection from my parents who both adored me. They were young and made mistakes at times but I was safe and happy and loved in a way that makes me feel very lucky even today. My dad spanked me when I was bad and I was made to do chores and sent to bed without dinner when I was cross but I was never struck in anger or tormented emotionally. The only times I can remember my mom spanking my butt was when she caught me lighting matches in the house and she let me have it good. I was three when I quit playing with matches permanently. The second time she spanked me we were in the grocery store and I saw a package with a toy bow and arrow and a toy knife. The blade was rubber and in the shape of a Bowie knife. She went to the next isle and I was sitting in the cart at the top, this was before any kind of safety equipment so I could easily reach that high on the shelf. I opened the package and stole the rubber knife and hid it under my shirt. She discovered my prize a few minutes later and I was spanked and made to apologize to the store manager while in tears. When I was two I sat in a high chair at dinner and when my parents made me eat egg plant I threw it up on the wall. I always had a very good appetite and that was the only type of food I ever refused to eat, well that and cottage cheese. For years I watched my dad eat cottage cheese and shuddered silently lest they discover my aversion and force me to eat that as well. Considering the pressures on my young parents and hearing the experiences of many friends these days I can only marvel at their love and my luck. I made several friends from the day care that I would visit or have over and I had 2-3 friends in the neighborhood but they were much older than my three years and teased me for fun so I avoided them after a while. One day the day care took a field trip to the zoo at Hermann Park in Houston. I remember the zoo animals very well such as the giant tortoises, the elephants, and when the baby giraffe was born. When my mom loaded up the 10 kids on bus to leave they forgot me and I had to sit alone under a tree in the park for 45 minutes until they came back. It was the closest thing I had to real trauma at the age of four but I don’t consider it that big a deal. Having a walking stick spit in my eye was more upsetting or when my mom caught me shop lifting a toy knife at the grocery store and spanked me and made me apologize to the store employee and give it back or when an older girl hit me with a whip, or the two older neighbor kids ganged up on me and punched me. I have tried to think of anything awful that might have happened to me at an early age but nothing really bad happened. One time my mom and dad began to argue as he came home and he raised his hand as if to strike her but she admonished him with a “don’t you dare”, and he lowered his open hand. It was the closest thing to domestic violence I ever witnessed and I cannot recall listening to them argue or fight to any degree. When they made me go to bed early I would cry and at times heard them laughing at me from the living room and I felt betrayed. My early childhood was unique only in the sense that it was normal and without emotional trauma save for the loss of my dog. Phillips Petroleum transferred my dad to Bartlesville, Oklahoma and so we packed up and moved to an apartment across the street from my school, Garfield Elementary school, an aging three story building where I would attend school through second grade. First I attended the Kindergarten several blocks away. I entered at mid-year and recall having a hard time fitting in and joining the other children playing kick ball at first. The play ground was all asphalt and enclosed by a giant fence and I was not fond of the place. I remember the first grade reader, Dick and Jane, and their dog Spot. I also remember the teacher reading the nursery rhymes, Old Mother Hubbard who lived in a shoe, the Three Little Pigs, and Chicken Little who ran around yelling, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling”. My parents read to me every night and my favorite stories were Uncle Remus and Briar Rabbit. We were supposed to memorize our address and phone number at school in case we got lost. I left for school that morning unable to complete the task and facing a “quiz” I would fail. I became angry and then hysterical, tearing up my paper with the information I was supposed to memorize. Instead of going to school I began pacing around crying and raging, talking to myself and crying. A neighbor woman driving by saw me and called someone who got me back home and then to school. I could not tolerate failure in myself and if I did not do something exactly right the first time in a structured setting like school then I became very upset. I demanded perfect performance of myself the first time all my life and the episode at Kindergarten was only the first of many self perceived failures. I remember Kindergarten Sunday school was taught there half the time by several different people and I participated but after a while I had the sensation of wishing that we could have regular classes instead. Once again religion in my family was neither encouraged nor actively discouraged yet I remember being fairly ambivalent. Garfield elementary was a tough start as well. When my mom dropped me off for the first day of school in first grade I started to panic and began to cry and it went downhill from there. I was playing with a small toy and another boy took it away from me, so I snatched it out of his hand and put it in my pocket. The overwhelmed and stressed out teacher saw me do so without seeing the first action and kind of freaked out. She took the toy away, safety pinned my pocket shut, and made me stand in a corner the rest of the afternoon. The rest of the year may have been equally lame, I don’t really remember. The only other thing about first grade that I can recall is that we did a lot of art work using scissors to cut up construction paper and glue it to other pieces of construction paper. I was left handed and the class was given only right handed scissors and when I tried to use them it was impossible. I could not figure out why using right handed scissors with my left hand resulted in a worse outcome than if I had used my teeth to chew the paper. It took my teacher an inordinately long time to figure this out as well and to this day I am not very fond of doing art work in general or cutting out pieces of construction paper in particular. Second grade was more memorable because my teacher was less stressed out by the demands of the job and more in tune with her students perhaps. I seemed to learn more and retain it better. I remember going around the room and taking turns trying to read with varying degrees of difficulty. I was upset with my public performance in class and got my mom and dad to help me read better so that I no longer embarrassed myself at school. There was a precocious little red headed girl named Patty who sat in front of me and seemed more worldly than all the other kids. I became enamored of a pretty brunette and began to spend a lot of time gazing in her general direction and this seemed to set off the little red head girl named Patty. She sat directly in front of me and to engage my attention began to unzip the back of her dress and proceeded to slowly peel her dress off her shoulders giving me a personalized strip tease. I realized the teacher was watching all of this and that made me nervous so I covered my eyes and peaked through my fingers. Needless to say Patty had to go out into the hall. That it seems was the most memorable moment of second grade across the mists of time. I contracted the flu for a week and was at home alone and sick so my mom brought me home a surprise one day. It was a brown paper shopping bag with a Siamese kitten inside. I had admired a Siamese cat that a neighbor had back at the apartments in Pasadena, Texas. The cat had been named Pilsifer of all things so of course I named my Siamese cat Pilsifer. The kitten was white with black points and blue eyes that were hopelessly crossed. Within days the cat and I were sleeping together and otherwise inseparable. There was no private yard at the apartments, just a common so my folks supplied a collar, chain, and a huge brick to tether the cat to so he wouldn’t run off or get lost from his new and unfamiliar home. Pilsifer grew rapidly and was dragging the brick around easily so that it was soon necessary to supply another oversized brick. It was not terribly long before the adolescent cat began to drag both bricks to our amazement and pull himself around by digging into the ground hard with his front paws and kicking with his back feet. A third giant brick was added and once again we all watched in wonder as the cat learned to dig into the ground and with rippling muscles pull three large bricks across the common yard. We dispensed with the bricks and chain but not before we had created a freakishly strong super cat. I was given two pet gerbils to round out the food chain and they toiled away happily in their glass terrarium and on their habitat wheel until one day about a year later they escaped and Pilsifer found his true calling. In truth I think we saved them in time and gave them away to a household without a cat. About this time I saw and read the story of Dr. Doolittle in a pop-up book and became enamored of the Great Lunar Moth. My father bought me a butterfly net, ether, and a display case and we set about collecting and mounting about 2-3 dozen specimens of butterfly until I gradually tired of the carnage. I never tired of searching for the elusive Lunar Moth, and having seen one decided it was too rare and wonderful to mount on my wall. It was about this time I discovered a caterpillar of unknown type and placed it along with a leafy branch into a coffee can and after placing numerous holes for air, closed the lid. I periodically verified that it was alive and when I checked it a few days later and found a chrysalis of iridescent blue green I began to anticipate a butterfly. The ritual of checking on the fabulous cocoon was an every day event and then gradually I grew tired of the wait and ceased my vigil. For some reason one day I decided to check it again and lo and behold there sat a very wet Monarch butterfly trying to dry its wings having just momentarily emerged from its long metamorphosis. I placed it outside and stood vigil over it until its wings were dry and it flew away in search of food and to complete its long journey north. I liked to play war with my friends using dart guns around the apartments and to make it more interesting we took the rubber suckers off the ends of the hard plastic darts. One of my neighbors was a guy who owned a very sleek antique jaguar and he was forever tuning the engine and waxing his beautiful car. I don’t know why but several times I fired a dart and it bounced off the ground, a pole, or my friend, and struck his car. He would go ballistic and scream his head off. One day I got very angry while playing war and threw my dart gun straight down onto the sidewalk where of course it split in two and half of it sailed directly into the hood of his car ten feet away. The poor guy was beside himself and grabbed me and was contemplating killing me when cooler heads prevailed. I felt sorry for the guy and wondered what it was about the universe that hated his prized possession. The summer after second grade my father bought me a new left handed baseball glove and I started little league baseball and that fall began to play organized basketball as well at the Boy’s Club. Initially I wasn’t always the best player on the team but sports were always a big part of my life. After two years my father put me on a team that skipped me two years ahead so that all my teammates were two and three years older than me. In the beginning it was a difficult transition and though he thought he was doing me a favor it was probably a bad idea. Soon it seemed to be rather effortless and after 4-5 years I began to get very good at both baseball and basketball. When I was in second grade my mom worked as a nurse for an orthopedic specialist so I came home to an empty house. I was lonely after a while and said so but what I got was puppets to amuse myself with. In retrospect it seems kind of cold comfort but I survived being a latch key kid. All through childhood I had to wear my house key on a shoelace worn around my neck because I kept losing my house key. The shoelace seemed to do the trick. During that summer a neighborhood boy was paid to baby sit me. He was a young teen but he was a very smart kid who seemed to have a special gift for people and animals. He had a bike with baskets on either side of the back so I would stand with a foot in each of the low slung baskets and hang onto his shoulders and we rode to his house or on adventures. He kept a pet raccoon that had grown up to maturity and was now too mean for anyone else to handle but him. He would handle the animal but it was very fierce and I couldn’t get near it. He was the only baby sitter I was ever fond of. He took me to cool movies at the local theater. Third grade was a more social experience and the friendships I made in second grade seemed to jell and we had lots of fun spending the night at each other’s houses and running around together at school. One day I came outside for recess and found my best friend Peter getting beat up by the older school bully who liked to thump third graders. I shoved him off and started fighting him to protect my friend and promptly got a bloody nose et cetera but it seemed to be the price of friendship. I learned how to deal with bullies over the next two years or so and it generally entailed getting the crap beat out of you most of the time but they knew I wasn’t afraid of them and that made them eventually leave me alone. In third grade we moved to a house in the suburbs called Oak Park. The address was 211 Spring Road. It was a corner house that had a giant back yard with a pear tree and a huge oak tree in front and was one block from the swimming pool and corner store, and six blocks from the elementary school. I had gotten a bike the year before and rode with training wheels and then learned to ride with the help of my Dad. He took me to a parking lot and held the back of the seat so I wouldn’t wipe out and I rode around in circles for three days straight before I got the hang of it. Out in the suburbs I could ride my bike everywhere, to the corner store, to school, the pool, or my friend’s houses, and took full advantage of my freedom. I let my parents know where I was going and had to be home by dark but generally was allowed free rein to come and go as I pleased. The school was new and I made friends without any problem. My third grade teacher was Mrs. Gross and she was smart and kind and absolutely gorgeous. We learned to perfect our penmanship and to read in class. The school grounds were huge and covered in thick grass and clover which was great except in the spring when you went barefoot you always stepped on bees. It happened to me a lot but I loved the feeling of the soft grass on my bare feet so the occasional bee sting, traumatic as it was, was just the price I paid. I fell in love with my teacher and when she crouched over our tiny desks I would drink her in and loved the attention. In order to shock the other boys and to show I wasn’t afraid of anything when she was helping the student in the next desk and had her back to me I turned sideways and leaned over backwards so that my head was literally up under her skirt. I was seven or eight years old and showing off. When the school year was over I bought her a necklace and went to see her. She was sitting alone in the room and I was embarrassed and confused to be so fond of her. I mumbled that I got her a gift and gave it to her and she opened it and said thank you. I got even more nervous and ran out of the room but looked back through the window and she had her head down on the desk sobbing. I guess I wasn’t the only one in love. It was teachers like her and others through the years who were calm and intelligent and who were self sufficient enough to give of themselves that made all the difference in my life. The creek ran next to the pool and it was narrow and deep with dark dirty water from the mud on the bottom and the nearby oil well. Mysterious giant bubbles constantly broke its surface from the pungent black mud. I caught the occasional cat fish there and not much else. My dad showed me how to take a board and nail the catfish skin down and use the knife and pliers to pull the tough hide off it and clean out its entrails and cut fillets without wasting the meat. We went fishing all the time together but the creek was too polluted for much fishing. Most of my time was spent at the pool playing tag or Marco Polo and diving off the diving board. During the summer when the pool got too boring me and a friend would find a huge log and float it down the creek fighting over “king of the log”. In the winter time the creek would freeze solid and the long steep banks were perfect for using our Mylar sleds to slide down and reach terrific speeds before we hit the ice and slid for a hundred yards or more. My dad bought me a cane fishing pole and took me to Grand Lake where we fished for crappy and bass in front of the damn. The crappy were fairly small fish and I had to throw half of them back but they would put up a tremendous fight for their size. My friends and I would jump on our bikes and ride for miles to the lake and dig for worms to fish or use cut bait. We would fish and eat our lunch, play king of the mountain of the earthen dam, and sleep in the sun or go swimming if it got too hot. Once I was swimming in the lake when I heard a strange noise from the bank and pulled back the brush and discovered a frog so huge that it scared me. My friend Peter and his family took me to their lake house and we would ski and swim and spend a weekend in the summer away from the city. Their family had lots of children but Peter was the youngest and last one still living at home and they kind of adopted me until we stopped hanging around each other by the sixth grade. I spent the rest of my free time during the summer at the Boy’s Club where I played basketball and learned to lift weights, play ping pong, pool, and darts. The Boy’s Club was on the “wrong side of the tracks” where most of the black folks lived and from second grade until seventh grade I played in the basketball league there and spent a lot of my free time in the summer there. My parents pointed out to me the living conditions on the poor side of town and that I had material things and advantages that some other people did not have. There was a zinc smelter on that side of town and many of the houses were “shotgun shacks”. I was eight years old and I spent a lot of time at the Boy’s Club around minority kids and at the same time my best friends’ parents were the wealthiest people in town and they lived in nothing short of a mansion. Their house had been built by an oil millionaire for his daughter after her wedding. It had a giant sweeping stairway at the entrance and circular tower feature like a story book castle. It made the Gone with the Wind mansion look modest. I was a little uneasy around my best friends’ family at first but they were down to earth and accepted me without reservation. Peter and I drifted apart after we got older and attended different middle schools. My friendships at the Boy’s Club revolved around team work and the love of the game but when not playing sports the interactions were not deep or lifelong friendships...but neither were any of my other friendships. I was closest to the kids in Spring Park elementary where I went to school. My parents bought me a record player and a 45 record of Puff the Magic Dragon as my first record. I bought a 45 vinyl record single with the Harlem Globe Trotters theme on it and would play it in my room and dribble indoors, outdoors, and everywhere I went and slept with my basketball. On the weekend I would take .25 cents and ride my bike miles into town to the movie theater where they showed all kinds of serials and classic films at matinee prices. This was before cable and movie channels and it was there that I fell in love with going to the movies for life. Eventually I caught rides with other people but I always went to the movies on the weekend matinee. I remember when I turned eleven and the matinee price was now .50 cents and how old I felt to have outgrown the .25 cent entrance fee. I watched a lot of TV, especially cartoons on Saturday and Disney programming like the Wonderful World of Disney. My dad’s favorite show as the FBI and it conflicted with the first 30 minutes of Disney. The FBI always ended the same, the FBI agent would yell halt and the bad guy would fire several shots and miss and the FBI agent would fire just once and the bad guy would fall to the ground. I immediately jumped up and changed the channel to watch the second half of the Disney show. After school I would come home and watch TV such as the show Dark Shadows, Gomer Pyle, and cartoons. I really just wanted to watch cartoons but they didn’t come on until later so the other shows filled the gap. I remember when I was ten years old the cartoons were taken off the air for a few weeks or longer because it was feared they were too violent for children and were harming us and making us violent but soon they were put back on TV. I never thought of the Road Runner as violent because they were not depictions of humans but rather animations of animals. Bugs Bunny was always my favorite cartoon of all. My mom told me not to watch so much TV but I continued anyway and she would touch the back of the TV to check to see if it was still hot when she got home. I started using the squirt gun we used on the cats to spray the back of the TV with water to cool it off. A couple of times I got it too wet and it quit working for a while and I got real scared thinking that I had ruined it. I bought albums from movie sound tracks that I had seen like 2001, Hair, Shaft, Bill Cosby comedy albums and even George Carlin’s Class Clown album. I would stand in front of the mirror with a baton and direct an imaginary orchestra in the opening theme of the film 2001 and the Blue Danube. Classical music was my favorite genre but when I was four years old my parents bought an Ampex reel to reel tape player and they listened to the Kingston Trio and folk ballads mostly. It wasn’t until sixth grade that I started regularly listening to rock and roll. I bought a transistor radio at a garage sale and remember when I was twelve waiting for the bus to go to school when the Aerosmith song Dream On came on and I was blown away. It seemed to be rock and roll from then on and I never looked back. In the fourth grade I quit playing the violin and started playing football for the school team. My mom told me I would live to regret my decision someday but I was more worried about what my friends thought about me. By the way she was right. My dad built me a basketball goal out of plywood and 2x4’s and placed it over the garage in the driveway. It was perfectly built and from the time I was seven years old I spent half my waking hours in the driveway shooting hoops by myself or with friends. The neighbors marveled at my diligence and after I began to get really good the college kid across the street would shoot hoops with me. I developed a sweet left handed hook shot from 16 feet using backboard or from the corner with nothing but net. My dad bought me my first football for Christmas and I practiced punting the ball in the front yard. There was a huge pyrocantha tree next to the house and it had thorns two or three inches long. The third week I had the football I punted it off the side of my foot and it landed in the tree and virtually exploded. I have not been fond of pyrocantha trees after this accident. My mom bought a female Siamese cat that she named May Ling to keep Pilsifer company and a few months later I went to the corner store a block away and there was a young stray cat. He was black with a white spot on his chest and lost so I gave him some food and he followed me home. We named him Othello (mom did) and he loved me so intensely that after I took a shower and sat on the couch watching TV in the evening he would always use his tongue to dry my hair. A year later I watched May Ling give birth to seven kittens in the closet and when they got old enough I put an ad in the paper and sold most of them and gave the last ones away for free. It was my first venture as an entrepreneur. Not long after, mom had the front door propped open and a gust of wind took the heavy wooden door and slammed it shut just as May Ling was going out. Mom rushed her to the vet but it was too late and she was very shook up about the accident. We bought a new female Siamese to replace her and the petting livestock did well from then on. I went to the corner store to buy grape bubble gum and blew giant bubbles everywhere I went. I chewed gum constantly, even in bed until I awoke with gum in my hair a few times. I liked candy cigarettes, so eventually in fourth grade I stole a pack of cigarettes (More 100’s) and went down to the creek to smoke them. I was not in the habit of stealing things from stores but my friend had smoked stolen cigarettes and I always had to prove that I wasn’t afraid even if it wasn’t smart to be so fearless. I got dizzy and nauseous and was unimpressed but enough is never enough so a week later I stole a cigar with the same friend (bad influence) and went back to the creek. I didn’t know any better and inhaled the cigar like a cigarette and almost died. That cured me of cigarettes for a while. Not to give a wrong impression of myself, I hadn’t stolen anything since the rubber knife I spoke of earlier and a friend’s toy gun when I was five, and have hardly stolen anything since. I had to give the rubber knife back and apologize at three and the guilt I felt over my friends toy gun made it impossible to enjoy playing with it. When I was 16 I stashed a can of spray paint at work and took home some stick on letters (and got caught) but I just never got in the habit of stealing things. Lying and stealing was something I was never any good at and just never got in the habit of doing. The element of danger in smoking was just too seductive and no one will sell an eight year old cigarettes. My friends always came over to my house and we constantly played tag, tackle football, or other games in the front yard, even in the coldest weather until it was almost completely dark. In winter it would usually snow 3-4 times hard enough so that we could build a giant snow man in our front yard. In those years it seemed that all my friends came over to my house for football and other games. I didn’t think of myself as the leader of the pack but that was just how it always worked out. We would play games all day until dark and then my friends would go home to eat dinner. When I first moved into the neighborhood in third grade I played hot wheels cars with my next door neighbor who also had a nice collection of hot wheels cars and I later bought the plastic yellow track at garage sales and we would construct elaborate indoor tracks and loops in my giant bedroom which was actually two rooms. I would start the track at the top of my bunk beds and make the cars pick up terrific speed as they flew down the length of track across the rooms. On the weekend my next door neighbor Terry and I would go to his house and watch the TV show The Monkeys and I would play air guitar and he played his real drums and we sang their songs. I got a dart board for Christmas and my friend Bob and I played darts until we got very good. We were throwing the darts from all over the room and near each other and one time I took a dart to the back. My room was huge, really two rooms that had a divider in the middle that I usually left open. We played nerf basketball when the weather was bad or when it was dark outside. The first year in the house my dad put an aquarium in the far room to try to figure out how to grow shrimp for aquaculture but the experiment didn’t work out in the end, I don’t remember why. My first girl friend was towards the end of third grade. I started walking her home every day after school holding her hand in mine. She had a few warts like I did before mine were burned off with liquid nitrogen. Most guys wouldn’t put up with warts on a girl but I was familiar with them and she was a special girl. I remember how nervous it made me to get the nerve up to hold her hand and how my hand was sweaty from nerves or perhaps from the fact that I wouldn’t let go of her hand all the way home. She was bigger than me with brown hair and blue eyes and smart and very pretty. I kissed her on the way home from school the second or third time I walked her home. It was my first kiss and I was in love at least in the way that third graders fall in love. After a few weeks she told me on the way home that her family was moving to England and we would never see each other again. I was stunned and it was kind of traumatic losing my first girl friend in the first few weeks. She moved two weeks later and I never saw her again. I would chase girls at recess sometimes and catch them if they wanted to be caught and kiss them if they wanted to be kissed but it wasn’t the same. In fourth grade it was the fad to buy a girl a bracelet with your name on it and let her wear it. I eventually bought a bracelet with my name on it and gave it to my girlfriend at the time. After fifth grade I thought it was foolish and stopped using the bracelet. My chores from third grade onwards were to clean my room and to clean both the bathrooms and help around the house and I got a small weekly allowance. I was not fond of cleaning the bathrooms but I had to do a good job in order to get paid. I learned to do a good job the first time because my parents checked and didn’t tolerate poor work. I also had to do the dishes in the kitchen sometimes and to vacuum around the house and keep my room clean. I was not allowed to handle the lawn mower until I was nearly ten years old and then I considered that I was woefully underpaid for the enormous yard we had. I began to collect coke bottles and aluminum cans and tried to figure out how to collect them from the car as we drove down the road but this proved impractical and when the price of aluminum dropped again I stopped collecting cans. My mom taught me how to make breakfast and to cook things like hamburgers so I felt self sufficient. My mom had a good friend who was going to school to be a psychologist so naturally she used me as an experiment in third grade. She gave me an IQ test that either she had designed herself or was an early Stanford Binet. Part of it consisted of testing my memory with longer and longer strings of numbers and asking me questions that seemed fairly obvious. I kept asking my mom how I did but at first she wouldn’t tell me and said something to the effect that smart people shouldn’t know how smart they are, that it’s not good for them. She was proud of me though and eventually said that I had tested at 126 IQ. It was the only IQ test I ever remember taking. It was by fourth grade that I began to read everything I could get my hands on. My parent always read to me at bed time and the stories became more elaborate until they were reading me whole books such as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Black Stallion and other such works. I often got my flash light and read books, comic books, and magazines like Boy’s Life in bed after I was supposed to be asleep. I was reading adventure stories and mystery stories written for kids and quickly began to find more and more complex books to read. Lest you think that I was a jock, I was in fact a book worm without reservation. I read for pleasure and escape and adventure. By the time I was out of fourth grade and into fifth grade I was reading all of the Sherlock Holmes stories and then every science fiction writer I could get my hands on. My parents always had lots of books at home and always read for pleasure and gave me books as presents so in a huge way books were always a major part of my life. It was very common for the family to turn off the TV and sit in silence and read books for 3-4 hours at night after dinner. In fifth grade I sat at the back of the room and read a book all during class for the entire year. The teacher would be giving a lecture and would suddenly call on me and ask me what she had been saying. I would calmly tell her exactly what she had been saying or what the answer to her question was and go back to reading my book. This was basically how I conducted myself in all of my classes and the teachers learned to leave me alone and let me read my books. This extreme behavior was characteristic of much of my entire life. I used reading as an escape from boredom and depression to the point of withdrawal from social situations. I always got A’s and B’s in school and I always had a small group of close friends but I was always reading a book at home and school. When times were boring or depressing I withdrew into literature as an escape. In fifth grade the teacher watched me read nearly the entire works of authors like Asimov, Heinlein, and Bradbury but seemed unable to accept the proposition that I understood what I was reading. In classes where I was fond of the teacher I was much less likely to read during their entire class as a sign of respect and in genuine interest to what was going on in class. By the time I was ten I had the vague feeling that I should ask my parents to put me in a special school where I could learn things at an accelerated rate. At the age of ten something seemed to happen intellectually and I felt like I could master all human knowledge or at least try to learn many languages and many different disciplines. It seemed like I had become some kind of perfect empty vessel that was ready to be filled with the knowledge of the entire human race. I felt kind of lost and depressed at school even though I did well it was not satisfying and I felt like I needed to reach for my potential in a different environment. I never asked them to help me because I didn’t want to get sent away to someplace strange and perhaps because I felt like it was presumptuous to ask for so much or maybe even that I wanted to be like the other kids more than I wanted to leap ahead at some fantastic rate. In third and fourth grade my dad helped me build model planes that flew and model rockets that used solid fuel to fly hundreds of feet into the air. We would fire the rockets by remote control and chase after them when the parachutes opened up so high in the sky they were almost lost to the eye. Dad was usually an assistant scout master and we went on lots of camping and canoeing trips with the local Boy Scout troop. I was planning to become an eagle scout one day and go to outward bound, a type of extreme survival camp. I liked the camp outs but I found most of the other activities boring after a while. The canoe trips were the most fun because of the rush of going through incredibly fast rapids and spending all day on long adventures on pristine rivers. Dad and mom came to most of my baseball games and basketball games until I was on so many teams it was impossible to keep up. By the time I was in sixth grade I played basketball in the Boy’s Club league, YMCA, Phillips 66 League, and the school team. Between the games and all the practices about all I did was eat, sleep and play basketball. That was the year I asked my mom to ask my dad not to coach my teams that year. I know it hurt his feelings but I felt like I would play better without him as a coach and be more at ease, less self conscious. I always had great fun playing little league baseball and I was usually on the All Star team at the end of the season. In fifth grade our team had a collective batting average of about .360 and we seemed to own the field. In the beginning I was a pitcher but later I played first base or outfield and batted left handed. My dad bought me a giant first baseman’s mitt which was hard to get used to and I would practice digging the ball out of the dirt at first base to be ready for poor throws that kids always made under pressure. The trick was to practice catching low throws in the dirt and to wait until you could tell where the throw was going and then stretch out in that direction. In fourth and fifth grade my best friend in the neighborhood was a real tall kid named Bob who was better at basketball than I was. He had older brothers so he was more aware of what was going on in the world than I was. We would play basketball all the time, mostly horse, and he usually won. He had a better throwing arm too and could hit anything he aimed at. We rode our bikes all over and ran the surrounding fields and cow pastures followed around by his dog Yoko. Yoko was a small multicolored dog of dubious heritage with a crushed pelvis from being hit by a car. She hopped around on stiff back legs with cheerful abandon as if nothing had ever happened to her. On long rides we put Yoko in the basket on the front of his bike or in the baskets in the back of my bike and carried her but she was a highly mobile mascot. We would cross the rancher’s fences and ride our bikes up the hills and look down on our neighborhood. On one hill there was a giant cross made out of the flat stones from the river bank and it was at the very top of the hill looking out to the west where we would sit and watch the sun go down as we gazed over the vast fields. I think I hung around with the real tall kid named Bob because he was a lot of fun to play with but also because he was one of the few people who was a better athlete than I was. Football season was a lot of fun but the season was only 10 games long. I would get so emotionally wired up for the game on Saturday morning that I would dry heave into the bathroom sink a few times and then I was okay and ready to play. It was like every game was a do or die event and I had to win the game at all costs. I was nine year old and sports were more or less my whole life. I bought a poster of Bob Hayes, the fastest man alive who played for the Dallas Cowboys and it was my greatest ambition in life to grow up to play football for the Cowboys. My first love was the University of Texas Longhorns football team because the first words I ever spoke after mama and dada was “hook’em horns”. The college bowl games were always painful for me because the Texas Longhorns had won a national championship but since I moved to Oklahoma they always lost the national championship to the Oklahoma Sooners. The truth of the matter was that after the Longhorns had won the national championship the rules were changed so that the recruiters from Oklahoma could go into Texas and get their pick of the best players first. Football was not merely a form of religion, it was religion itself and this rule change was considered a great sacrilege. When people in Oklahoma found out I was born in Texas they called me Tex and when I later moved back to Texas they called me Okie. When I was eleven UT was beaten by OU in the last game of the season and in a fit of anger I destroyed my prized possession, a burnt orange Texas Longhorns t-shirt. When you’re a kid race isn’t particularly important or at times even noticeable. In retrospect I remember some of my friends were Native American that is to say very many of them were at least half Anglo and half Indian. Charlie was part Native American and a good friend and he was the funniest guy in my class. In third grade he passed milk through his nose in the lunch room while laughing and we all laughed so hard we hurt. After that we were friends forever and he remained my funniest friend. He had the habit of licking his lips all the time and in winter his lips would chap so bad he had to put Vaseline on them. One time in fourth grade we were playing tackle football in the school yard at Christmas with our friends and it was very cold. Charlie tried to blow his nose and only half succeeded so then he got up on the parallel bars and started to swing this huge string of mucus out his nose back and forth as it grew longer and longer, soon claiming it was a world record. He may have been right and we almost died laughing. We kept records of things like that believe it or not. Greg lived on the next block and we played together a lot in third and fourth grade. He had a sister who was real pretty and I liked to hang around but his dad was a giant of a man, a full blooded Indian who worked as a butcher and never said very much so I never tried to kiss Greg’s sister. Greg was real short like his mom and pretty quiet like his dad and we played catch together with the baseball and football with our neighbor named Scott. One time Scott was acting like he was going to throw the baseball at me real hard from real close up, like ten feet. He kept faking the throw to make me flinch until I quit trying to catch it if he let it go and it was about the tenth time that he accidently let the ball slip out of his hand and it hit me in the mouth. Greg got pretty mad at him while I was trying to shake off the busted lip I had. It was the most reaction I ever saw him make. They moved to another part of town after a couple of years. Scott moved away after fifth grade and he was afraid to go and lose all his friends so he got my phone number and called me for about a year and would talk but I guess he got used to the new place after a while. Allen was the best football player and the toughest kid because his dad was so hard on him. His dad was Anglo and his mom was perhaps the most beautiful Native American woman I ever saw. During football practice in fifth grade Allen punched another kid out through his football helmet and past his face mask, which is next to impossible. He had quite a temper and I generally avoided tangling with him when I could help it. He had the habit of getting upset and starting to raise his voice louder and louder so you could just stop arguing with him and leave him alone and he usually calmed down. In third grade when I first moved to Oak Park Allen talked an even bigger kid into helping him jump me during recess. He could whip me but it was never easy and he learned to leave me alone. It is strange because I don’t remember these kids as being of Native American descent but nearly half of my friends were. We all played a game that was kind of crazy but it was very exciting to play. We first started playing it in fourth grade. We would find a wasp nest and take turns throwing rocks at the nest to excite the wasps so they would chase us and we usually would stop after we got stung. Other times instead of rocks we would use a stick and run up to the frenzied nest and use that to strike the nest and try to avoid getting stung. It was to prove that we weren’t afraid of the wasps or hornets. I would play as long as everyone else would but once I got stung once or twice in the neck or on the arms I generally had had enough. The wasps would catch you about twenty or thirty feet away from their nest and kind of grab onto your arm or neck and vibrate as they stung you with their poison. The feeling of their arthropod bodies grabbing onto your skin looking for the best location for the barbed stinger is not a feeling one soon forgets. We used baking soda on the stings or mud from the creek was even better. We were pretty wild kids who were always on the move and always playing hard. I broke my wrist falling out of a tree, and broke some fingers and toes in bike wrecks and playing football but considering what risk takers we all were I was surprisingly unscathed. There was one kid whose last name was Boone that lived one block away that I always wound up getting into fights with. He was supposedly a descendent of Daniel Boone. The kid had a terrific temper and a very fair complexion so right before he would try to punch me he would press his lips together and they would turn white and the rest of his face would turn bright red. It was kind of sad because he didn’t have any friends and we both tried to play together and get along but for some reason we would start to argue and most of the time would get into terrific fights. It usually ended in one of us picking up a giant tree limb and knocking the other one into next week. Since he always pressed his lips together and turned beet red I had the advantage and learned to either back off or hit him first or pick up a fallen tree limb first. Even with this advantage he was hard to whip because his incredible temper made him virtually immune to pain. Neither one of us was willing to back down and once the fight started it could continue for quite a long time because neither one of us was willing to concede defeat. No one liked him, not even the teachers, and I felt bad about it and tried to be his friend. Eventually we gave up trying to be friends and just avoided each other. My mom was working as a nurse in a doctor’s office when she went back to college to finish her four year degree and then to law school. She drove 49 miles each way to the University of Tulsa law school and she graduated with a law degree when I was ten or eleven. She became a member of the League of Women Voters and was the first female assistant district attorney in the state of Oklahoma. She would go along on police raids and murder investigations and all kinds of exciting things. I sat in court a few times and watched her prosecute criminal cases. She was very proud of her accomplishments and loved her career. I watched her struggle against long odds and accomplish what in those days women just weren’t allowed to accomplish. A lot of people in town resented her and said things about it but the cops and detectives respected her for her toughness and professionalism. All my life my parents drilled into me that if I really wanted something bad enough I could work very hard for as long as it took and eventually I could reach my goal. The key was wanting something bad enough and not giving up. They drilled into me that people who quit or only went half way were quitters who were not to be admired or pitied. It was a harsh philosophy but their lives were excellent examples of what they preached. I was expected to do a good job the first time, to work hard and never to give up no matter what. The one thing I gave up on and learned to regret later was not staying with playing a musical instrument. My fifth grade music teacher Mrs. Rodgers encouraged me to play the violin and we learned to sing all the old songs from the twenties and earlier. I began to play the violin the year before and she was very fond of me and tried to convey her love of music to me. She talked to the Lion’s Club and they bought tickets for me to see concerts and musicals. The first musical performance was by a harp virtuoso, and later musicals like Oklahoma. She was very religious and one day she played Handel’s Messiah and I began to make faces and make fun of the music in class. Everyone was laughing and she put me in front of the class and had me make faces to the tune of Under the Yum Yum Tree in order to embarrass me but of course this was next to impossible. She stopped the music and began to cry as she explained what Handel was writing about and how important it was and I had never felt so low in my life for letting her down. In retrospect I wish that I had kept playing a musical instrument all my life. There was a girl named Anna in fifth grade who called me “Senior Know it All” to tease me but she really liked me. I asked her out to a school dance and she said yes but then as the date of the dance neared she began to ask me over and over again if I still wanted to go and tell me that her mother was not going on vacation so she could stay home and sew a special dress for her. It continued like this for a while until finally I couldn’t stand the responsibility anymore and told he I couldn’t go so she would chill out. I felt like I let her down but she was making the dance out to be the end of the world and I was only ten so I said forget it. I wish I had gone to the dance with her. When I was eleven years old I went to the orthodontist and I got braces in order to correct a future overbite and eventually wore a head gear at night and then finally a retainer. The braces were fairly painful when they were periodically tightened and sleeping with the elaborate headgear on at night was like wearing a strange torture device. I still developed a mild overbite but presumably all that pain and embarrassment and no small expense led to avoiding a larger overbite. On the day I first came home from the hospital, so my parents have told me, they placed me in front of the small black and white TV and I watched the first American manned orbital space flight as John Glenn was launched into space. When I was seven I remember watching men walk on the surface of the moon as the crew of Apollo 11 landed on the moon in July of 1969 on the same black and white TV that I had watched John Glenn on. I’ve always been captivated by the space program and a few years later I met the astronaut Thomas Stafford and he generously spoke to my parents and I for a while and encouraged me to follow my dreams. I treasured his autographed photo for many years and eventually wound up going to school with the children of astronauts when I moved to Houston and eventually working for NASA. In fifth grade the first African American family moved into the subdivision and my parents invited them over to the house to welcome them to the neighborhood. Tolerance was something my parents taught me by example and not just words. When I was thirteen my mom worked at a law firm in Houston and her secretary was a very statuesque, very beautiful black woman named Ruby and I remember she and her husband coming over to the house for a party. She and I danced and did the “bump” together and it was the highlight of my year. Taking me to the Boy’s Club to play with people of different races was perhaps one of the best things my parents did for me. I learned to judge people by who they were and not what they looked like and I also learned what it felt like to be the minority in a crowd. When I started playing basketball at the YMCA league and Phillips 66 league I was one of the best players in the league because of my early start, my dedication to practice at home, and playing at the Boy’s Club. On the nights when I was really hot I scored most of the teams points and made shots and handled the ball in a way that really blew peoples’ minds. I got used to standing ovations and more than once was carried off the court on the shoulders of my teammates. It is something everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime. When I turned twelve I started to hang out with my friends more and we would spend the night with each other in order to sneak out at night and run around in the middle of the night. I remember feeling like I wanted to fit in with the crowd and not be so different. We were bored and to relieve our boredom we used toilet paper on the yards of our friends or we would ring the door bells of houses in the middle of the night until someone came to the door in anger. We generally chose strangers who would chase us and this was a chaotic thrill having angry grown men chasing after you at 2 or 3 a.m. If we had gotten caught we would have been in tremendous trouble from our parents, never mind what the rightfully angry working men would have done to us. I realized I was hanging around with friends who were less than ideal but at twelve years old I found the more delinquent and dangerous kids more fun to hang around with. The most dangerous kid had moved into the neighborhood the year before and he rode motorcycles in competition and was always getting hurt in races or otherwise. He had a huge tree house that we hung out in and used an old garden hose to swing from in a death defying act. One time it broke on him and I watched as he landed on a tree root and broke his tail bone. I eventually realized that I didn’t particularly like him but they had guitars and motorcycles and the aura of danger that I was not used to. In third grade we would play doctor in the closet with the girl across the street, but it was more like show and tell. In fifth grade I snuck out at night and had gotten in the bushes to play spin the bottle with a girl named Renee and her sister so I had gotten to second base which was a big deal to me. By sixth grade six of my friends and I would spend the night in our friend’s garage and bring our sleeping bags and sit around and talk about girls and masturbate. In sixth grade I visited a girl named Denise when her parents were gone and we listened to Alice Cooper records as I made out with her and came close to making love to her. She took off her pants and lay down. I fondled her but I didn’t really know what to do next though so even though I tried to mount her it didn’t go any farther than that because we both got too scared to continue even though I wanted to. I was twelve years old and wanted to be sexually active with the girls but not having older siblings meant I didn’t really know how to go about it. Compared to more worldly kids I didn’t really know what to say or how to act and how not to act. I had not lived a sheltered life because I went wherever I wanted and did whatever I wanted to do. Compared to most kids today I had a safer childhood. I was never really traumatized by a lot of the things that most people go through today in their childhood. I had never been exposed to people with drug or alcohol problems or family violence of any kind. By that I mean that I had never been exposed to negative models or influences. The worst thing I had ever seen was when I was seven or eight the neighbor’s cat which I was very fond of crossed the street to play with my cat and was run over right in front of me in a very gruesome manner. I was shook up for several days after that happened. When I was ten years old a boy who I idealized named Randy was playing on a waterfall and fell and hit his head and drown. He lived on a ranch and played basketball even better than I did. He had been on my team and I wished I was more like him. When my folks told me he had died it seemed like everything went dark and I couldn’t see very well. I walked around in a daze for a while afterwards. My uncle who I idealized as my hero had come back from Vietnam with a heroin habit and he had been arrested and put into rehab in Orange County, California. The entire family went to visit him and my mom made him tell every single detail about his battle with drugs in front of me for hours. He talked about shooting heroin and withdrawals and committing crimes and lying to get money for more heroin. He even talked about how he would con his parents out of more money all the time to score. He was cold sober and chain smoking while he spoke and I resolved never to even try heroin and never did, which is probably what my mom had in mind the whole time. It worked very well indeed. It was like the first scared straight movie in history except I was ten and he was a friendly witness. In 1972 the pollution was so bad in the Los Angeles basin that it gave me a headache. Mike’s father in law lived there and eventually died from emphysema. It was surreal going to Sea World and Disney Land and then going to a drug rehab center. In fifth grade we had watched a film about drug abuse that showed a kid trying to play baseball but unable to play well and the drugs were depicted just a constellation of colored lights revolving around his field of vision. I had resolved not to use drugs after visiting my uncle Mike in rehab. The Vietnam War was the first television war and I watched the news every night and it would show the occasional dead American soldier or Viet Cong soldier. The war and the student protests were both covered to a surprising degree especially compared to the sanitized news coverage of today. Between the controversy of the war which divided every family along generational lines and the chaos of the political assassinations it felt toward the end of the decade like society was coming apart at the seams. Even as a seven year old I could absorb the creativity and chaos of the era. The young idealists who tried to change things as young adults seemed to get nothing for their considerable pains and retreated into other avenues, many of which such as drugs, led nowhere. It was as if I watched their youth and idealism die right before me. They tried peaceful nonviolent protests for many years but Nixon and the others just ignored their pleas or answered them with tear gas and Billy clubs and jail. Eventually they turned to other avenues or to violence. When I was ten my mother’s youngest brother was killed when his double length tractor trailer rig slid off a bridge in a heavy ice storm. He was only 24 years old and my mom took it very hard. He was the baby of the family. The funeral was a very difficult experience for all of us and my mother called it an obscene ritual. I think her attitudes and ability to question the norms of the world around her influenced me to think for myself. I remember driving home from a basketball game one night with my dad listening to Nixon give a speech where he declared the end of the Vietnam War. I knew it was a very important moment as the headlights and shadows merged together on the empty road. The war was finally over but I didn’t know how to feel about it at twelve years old. In seventh grade I went to the junior high school on the other side of town and didn’t see as much of my friends anymore because the school was huge. The school was old, decrepit, and overcrowded. It was kind of disorienting and I did not do well in algebra but Spanish and history class were a lot of fun. I acted out in class more than ever before and generally felt kind of alienated from my surroundings. I played football and baseball that year but not basketball for the school. Football was fun because I was more of a standout player and the stadium at the high school was huge. When they called my name on the P.A. over and over again before the huge crowd I got a real ego boost. The girls would follow me around after the game like they had never seen me before. On a kickoff in one game the ball carrier was huge and I lowered my head to spear him. I made the tackle and forced a fumble but I was stunned and had pinched a nerve in my neck and had even broken my helmet. It was years before my neck returned to normal and sometimes I would feel a sharp pain like someone had hit me with a cattle prod. It was the beginning of the end of my football career. I stayed up late at night on the weekends watching a local show called Dr. Mazeppa Pompazoidi that showed all the old Frankenstein, Dracula and Werewolf movies. I liked getting the crap scared out of me in the middle of the night. At thirteen years old I started lifting weights in the weight program at the Boy’s Club. The coach was an Olympic medalist who could dead lift 850 lbs and he was a cool guy. Strangely out of character for me at least, I spent time in front of the mirror worrying that I was fat. My folks said not to worry and that I was normal and it was just a phase I was going through. I guess I was going through the normal thirteen year old problems of self image and body image and worrying about how I looked to others. My parent’s marriage had begun to slowly break up and I could sense something going wrong.
We moved back to Houston, Texas to Clear Lake City where I attended eighth grade through high school. The house was a few miles from NASA and the subdivision was very nice. The school I went to was very large and loud and for several months I was in a depression. I had grown up with one set of friends nearly my whole life and now I was surrounded by strangers. I kept seeing the faces of my friends in the crowds of strange kids and I would call out to them but then realize they weren’t there. I stayed up very late every night unable to sleep watching the Johnny Carson show until I fell asleep on the couch. I watched Monty Python’s Flying Circus till midnight or one on weekdays and yawned all day at school. I remember climbing up onto the roof of our house and throwing water balloons at cars when they stopped at the four way stop at the corner. It scared the hell out of people when the water balloon hit the top of their car with a whomp and they couldn’t see where it was coming from or see me hiding behind the crown of the roof. I showed the neighbor kids how to attack the passing cars in this way. It was a thrill but uncharacteristic of me and I still don’t know what I was thinking of at the time. I drank hard liquor for the first time when my parents went out for the night and I drank their bourbon and filled the bottle back up with water. It took me an entire year or longer to become acclimated to my new surroundings. I played football but didn’t have as much fun that year and so I started playing tennis as well. I had begun playing tennis two years before when tennis began to be shown on TV all the time. Soon a type of battle of the sexes grudge match between Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs was hyped as a big deal. I identified with Jimmy Connors, a left handed hot head who played a very aggressive emotional game. In response to the constant tennis hype I got my mom’s tennis racquet out of the closet and began to hit an old flat tennis ball against the garage. The local Lion’s Club built a tennis court at the school and I played often, mostly hitting the ball against the back board. I knew I wanted to get good so I practiced hard and found another kid who was good for a beginner and we played tennis together that summer. I joined a local tennis club in Houston and took lessons because that was where a girl named Kay worked and played tennis and I was very taken by her. By the time school started in ninth grade I was good enough to play on the school team but decided not to. I quit playing football and baseball that year. I joined the school golf team in ninth grade because they got out an hour early to practice at the local country club. In health class we had to sit in a temporary building and copy notes written in very small script off of four or five blackboards. The only thing I learned in health class was that I needed glasses. Overnight after I turned thirteen I was myopic, or near sighted and began to wear glasses and didn’t much like it. I dropped out of chemistry class and was doing terrible in math but my other subjects were still fine. I still rode my bike everywhere at thirteen and fourteen but I was chafing at the bit to get a car which wouldn’t be legal until I hit sixteen. My parents bought a 1966 Chevy Camero rally sport new and I always loved that car so I copied their car keys and when they left the house for several hours I got in the car and drove it around the block a few times. People could barely see my 13 year old head over the steering wheel and laughed as I drove the car 20 MPH in a very hesitant stop and start manner. I practiced driving when they weren’t home and gradually got better at it. Eventually about a year later I took the car out to Red Bluff Road which was a long straight fairly deserted stretch and decided to see what the car could do. The speedometer read 125 MPH before it maxed out but I may have been going a little faster. Not bad for a stock factory car that was nine years old. I was kind of shook up after that and decided to throw the car keys away before something really bad happened. In eighth grade I made friends with several of the kids who lived nearby. David and Brad lived a block away and when they got motorcycles at 15 I talked my dad into co-signing a loan and bought one too. It was a Honda XL100 which cost just under $800, the largest street bike a 15 year old could legally drive and since it was on and off road we did a lot of dirt track riding and riding on trails in the woods. I had no idea whatsoever how to ride a motorcycle and the concept of the clutch was quite a hurdle. The first time I rode the bike I kept stalling out the motor and in frustration I gunned the engine and popped the clutch. The bike did a wheelie and I let go in time to stay on my feet but the bike flew out from under me and crashed spectacularly. I eventually got the hang of how to ride without serious injury. It was great fun tearing around town on the streets at terrific speeds with two other speed addicts. We would all ride out into the woods and ride down trails and around an oval dirt track and then ride to school for class. I got a ticket for running a stop sign in the middle of the night at a four way stop in the middle of nowhere but surprisingly that was the only ticket I ever got on my bike. I was weaving in and out of traffic at high speed once and a cop pulled me over but he just warned me not to drive so recklessly. He was concerned about me and he was right of course. I wrecked occasionally on the dirt track and trails but I would just get up and dust myself off, straighten out the handle bars and front wheel, and get back on the bike. One night we were all riding down a dark street with a slow bank curve and I was in the rear when I drove through water and mud on the pavement from a construction site. The fine gravel and mud was like ice and my back wheel slipped out from under me without warning. I was going about 45 MPH and my head hit the pavement very hard and bounced twice. The helmet strap was loose and on the third strike the helmet flew off my head as I slid to a stop. My pants legs and knees were shredded and bleeding and the gas tank was heavily dented by my knee. I was laid up for three days and lucky not to be injured worse. It was the only wreck I ever had on the street with my XL-100 and I contemplated wearing leather but in Houston, Texas it was not very practical due to the heat. This was all part of a period of risk taking and borderline self destructive behavior. When I was fourteen and had been in town for six months I made numerous friends finally and was starting to adjust better. I hung out with two neighbors my age named Brian and Greg who were more mellow and mature friends. They played soccer instead of football and other sports, had older brothers and were thus more worldly, and reminded me of people from California. They were both real smart and kind of quiet and both occasionally smoked marijuana but didn’t act like pot heads. They were both highly intelligent and took very hard classes in school and stayed out of trouble. They had more common sense and higher self esteem than I did or the people I normally hung out with. I didn’t smoke cannabis at 14 and they didn’t try to make me conform by smoking like they occasionally did but just accepted me as I was. Later on after my parent’s divorce I started hanging around with the wrong crowd. Vetter was an older guy who had long hair and facial hair, came from a dysfunctional family, and was heavily into drugs. He was the prototypical wheeler dealer and pot head. At 15 I started hanging around with him for months and smoking marijuana. He was into all kinds of drugs like cocaine, heroin, and pills but I just got cannabis from him. He was a smooth talker who had several girl friends and the aura of danger around him but after a while I realized he was all about himself and all in all a real jerk. I started hanging around with Vetter right when everything started going wrong in my family life. All three of my cats came down with feline leukemia and they had to be put to sleep. I acted like it didn’t bother me but I didn’t get another pet for 15 years. Shortly after that my parents got divorced and even though it was a friendly separation and they told me it wasn’t my fault I felt very badly and blamed myself. Looking back now I realize that the divorce had a profound effect on my behavior until I was in my early 20’s. It was then I began engaging in very destructive behaviors such as drugs and alcohol as a form of self flagellation or perhaps just to dull the emotional pain I was feeling. At least at first I would classify it as self flagellation but later when I just drank alcohol and smoked cannabis it became more of a form of self medication to medicate the pain I was feeling. I stayed constantly in motion and had a series of jobs such as busing tables at a Mexican restaurant and dishwasher at a night club restaurant. I would go to school during the day and go to work at night which took up all of my time. I quit playing sports and stayed in constant motion so I wouldn’t have time to think. I moved into a townhouse with my mom and didn’t see my dad for at least six months. During that period of time I used all manner of drugs and once nearly wrecked my motor bike while driving under the influence. After that first year I settled down but continued to use drugs and alcohol until I was in my early twenties. I ascribe this state of affairs both to my emotional state and to the company I kept. It wasn’t until I made the decision to go back to school and get away from my so called friends from the old days that I changed my behavior and quit drugs and alcohol. When I was seventeen I was very depressed and my parents got me to visit a psychiatrist friend of theirs from their college years. Don was a small town guy from Arkansas who married his high school sweetheart and worked his way through college. My mom was helping him patent some of his work. I saw him probably fewer than ten times but he gave me a bunch of tests and on our third meeting he confronted me about my drug and alcohol abuse. He showed me graphically how using a depressant like marijuana made my central nervous system operate at a 70% of normal level. My test scores did not match up with my IQ and my physical reactions were slowed way down. I promised to change my behavior and he advised that one does not change immediately but real change happens a little bit every day. He told me I had an excellent central nervous system and the potential for a lot of ego strength and he that he was very excited for me and my potential and wanted to be part of my future. My mom helped him copyright his version of a new IQ test and he and his wife Dawn became familiar friends who visited often. The next year we went on a canoeing trip down the Guadalupe River in the hill country and he proved to be quite the outdoorsman. When I was 18 he suffered a heart attack and died suddenly. In Gaelic mythology there is the figure of the sin eater, a man who is so poor he is starving to death so to save himself and his family from this terrible fate he is paid to take the sins of the deceased onto himself so their souls may enter into heaven unencumbered. Don had listened to the problems and woes of countless people for many years and it is my belief that the sheer weight of human misery that he had taken upon himself had ended his life. It reminded me of something my uncle Mike had said about the Vietnam War. It seemed that death there was so random and that you would think that it would be the bad people that you knew that would get killed but in fact more often than not it was the good people who died in ways that could not be foreseen or even guarded against. It was all very arbitrary and terribly unfair. I couldn’t really process or deal with his death very well so I began to careen out of control. It reminded me of a Fellini movie I had seen, or a novel by Herman Hesse where the main character suddenly loses a friend he admires very much and begins to spiral off into a destructive and chaotic direction. It seemed like I spent most of my senior year of high school at the beach. In the end I missed so much school that I didn’t even get my diploma after graduation. At 16 and 17 my friends and I had all moved up to muscle cars instead of just motorcycles. I drove a 1970 Buick Skylark and my friends drove a 1973 Mustang Mach I, a 1969 Chevy Camero convertible, a 1969 Dodge Charger and a 1969 Barracuda. We spent a lot of our time at the beach in Galveston most weekends and even many weekdays instead of in class. Life seemed to be one big keg party. As a sophomore I took the SAT test with a hangover of course and scored a 1275 but I had no idea what college I wanted to go to or what the future held for me. I felt like the last two years of high school were just a holding pattern where they told you the same old stuff over and over again and kind of warehoused you because they didn’t know what to do with you. I was a member of the chess club and the golf team and my teachers thought enough of me to get me in who’s who but I felt rather alienated and didn’t particularly like high school. I kept reading all the time and other wise ran around with my friends to parties and concentrated on getting drunk and high, and getting laid. I wasn’t the only unhappy soul out there though. All of my peers or at least most of them were using alcohol and marijuana and many of them were into cocaine, speed, or pills of all kinds. If there was a bell curve running from no use to extreme use of substances I probably landed near the middle of most of the people my age and older that I knew and ran around with. I went to chess tournaments and played against the best guy I could find, David, who had his own chess computer. He would beat me at least four out of five times in the beginning but I got my own chess computer and read some books and played him ten times a day sometimes and eventually I drew even with him and began to surpass his level of play. David was from Louisiana and his parents were very cool people who let him smoke but not drink alcohol. We went to New Orleans together for Mardi Gras when I was 17 and then to Biloxi, Mississippi. There we met up with his crazy Cajun cousins and his grandfather who was a professional gambler and we met some real characters. We hitch hiked home to Houston which was an experience in and of itself. All through high school I went to rock concerts constantly. I had friends who worked security for concerts and one of them looked like me so I routinely dressed in white shirt, black tie and slacks and walked through the back of the stadium like I owned the place and saw dozens of concerts for free. My first major concert was Pink Floyd and I never looked back. I saw all the major acts and lost count at around forty concerts during high school. When I turned eighteen I felt very old like I had done and experienced everything a person could experience, very worldly and world weary. On my birthday the Alice Cooper song Eighteen played in my head, “a baby’s brain and an old man’s heart”. When I had first moved to Clear Lake in eighth grade the first guy I met a guy named Les who was the craziest kid of all. His parents were heirs to tremendous wealth through adoption by a Texas oil baron. His family was absolutely crazy and totally fearless. Actually his parents were both nice people and had always been kind to me but there was a degree of chaos in their home I wasn’t used to. His older sister had totaled out around 6 new cars before she graduated high school. I first met Les while riding my motorcycle in the sand around a brand new swimming pool that had yet to be filled up with water. We were both peeling out in the fresh sand and turning around to admire the rooster tails of dirt that shot up and the huge ruts we made. Les was admiring his burn out looking back over his right shoulder when he rode right off into the deep end. I was right near the edge and tried to yell a warning to him over the sound of our motorcycle engines but when my mouth opened no appreciable sound came out. His bike crashed heavily nose first and his face cleared the front handle bars and hit the concrete without slowing down. Incredibly he managed to raise up and let out something between a cry and a moan and a tremendous amount of blood began to pour from his nose. Just then two of his friends showed up and we managed to get his bike out of the pool and get him to the hospital. That was the first day I had met Les and that was just how it went around him but usually it was other people that got hurt. He had unlimited supplies of money, drugs, guns, friends, women, and parties but he was just too plain dangerous to hang around with. When I saw Les ten years after that he had somehow survived but he was desperate and had a hunted look in his eyes. His marriage had just failed spectacularly and my girl friend had just left me as well. “Marshall, you’ve got to help me”, he pleaded. I shrugged like Bogart looking into the eyes of Peter Lorrie, “Les, you’ll just have to find a way to survive because I can’t even help myself”. His grandmother was the richest woman in Texas but he was the most unhappy man on earth. By the time high school ended I got a job on a deep sea fishing boat as a deck hand and worked very hard and went far off shore at times. The boat was 273 feet long with twin Detroit diesel engines that could travel at terrific speed. I know exactly how long the ship was because I had to scrub one entire side by myself. We used squid for bait and when it dried in the hot sun it was like dried egg yolk, nearly impossible to remove. I saw a lot of people get injured and I almost got killed in a tropical storm raising the anchor in twelve foot seas but I learned to get my sea legs and always carry a glow stick in my back pocket in case I fell overboard. Once during a tropical storm the ship heeled over at nearly 45 degrees and I was almost swept overboard. Despite these near misses I really loved working on the water. It took me two weeks to learn my duties and to perform them well without dropping from exhaustion or getting injured. The company VP had been meaning to fire me but when he went on a long trip and he watched me in action he got me in front of the Captain and told him that I was doing a great job. I was sea sick at first but I just didn’t eat before going on board ship and after two weeks I became acclimated and eventually could walk on a rolling deck when other people had to crawl. The amount and diversity of sea life we caught was amazing and it generally ran 2-3 thousand pounds of fish in one day. Years later I went back out and the size of the red fish was way down. The giant breeder red fish that ran over twenty pounds we called sows were completely missing. Also missing was the extreme diversity of the other sea life and the sheer amount of fish we caught. Eight hundred pounds was a good catch now instead of two thousand pounds. Human pressure on the Gulf of Mexico was having a profound effect on the life there in only 10-12 years. The ship moved back to New Jersey after a year and I had to find another job. My mom remarried and soon moved to California and when she left town I moved in with my dad and this was the fifth time I had moved since starting high school. I had stopped using alcohol and drugs but when I ran into my old friends they usually supplied both so it was episodic sobriety at best. I began working near the ship channel at chemical plants and some of it was rather dangerous work but the money was very good. One of my friends from high school died working in the chemical plants as did a co-worker. It was not an uncommon occurrence to lose people and so I decided to try to find something else if possible. I worked a series of low paying minimum wage jobs and occasionally waited tables for a few years and lived with roommates who were generally friends from high school or the old neighborhood. My best friend and roommate during this period was a guy named Bruce who grew up in the area and had lived two blocks away from my parents. He was a very smart guy whose dad had been a fighter pilot in Vietnam and didn’t make it home. He had been the only black guy in the entire high school and had graduated as the class president before I got there. He seemed to be stranded in life hanging around the old neighborhood not knowing what to do next. He did a stint in the Special Forces or the air borne or something but had gotten out before the next war started. His friends were generally all guys about his age (24) who grew up within a few blocks of where he and I had lived, had done a stint in the armed forces and were now back in Clear Lake City with no particular direction in life. We had fun going to lots of clubs and meeting lots of women. For the next two years I hung out with this older crowd and learned the futility of minimum wage jobs and serial binge drinking. In my second year of wasting my life I realized that my current situation was leading nowhere and just because everyone else was doing it didn’t necessarily mean it was a good idea. I moved back in with my dad and started going to a junior college in Pasadena. I remember taking stock of the world and how dissatisfactory I found it, downright inhumane, cruel, prejudiced, poor, ignorant, and dysfunctional it all seemed. The world was in terrible shape with dozens of nations at war and in crisis and others blissfully indifferent to it all. I was an angry young man in a world run by old men who ran things this way because that was the way things had always been done, not necessarily because of a conscious plan or methodology to make the world an evil hellish place. There seemed to be no will to fix what was broken and to heal the earth. It was a world I was inheriting and I was extremely angry about it to the point of raising holy hell but this would ultimately do no good in and of itself so I resigned myself to this terribly flawed world they had given me...and remained the angry young man in a mad world. I met a girl named Thelma who had a tremendous crush on me and came from a troubled family situation. Her dad was an alcoholic who abused her and her little brother and I guess I was going to save her. Somehow I talked my dad into letting her move into the townhouse with us. She was eighteen years old and I was twenty and we had both been sexually active before but had never lived with anyone. In retrospect neither one of us knew what we were doing. I quit working in the chemical plants and started going to San Jacinto Junior College full time. I would procrastinate and turn in all of my writing assignments and research papers on the last day by pulling an all nighter using a type writer and a bottle of white out. It is hard to explain the joy of using a type writer to someone who was born in the computer age. It involved two finger typing and having the admonition of not making any mistakes on your college papers. No mistakes involved writing and then tearing up several copies of each page before perfection was achieved all the while racing the clock as the sun threatened to come up. Before finals I would study for days by drinking entire pots of Chicory Louisiana coffee until I had heart palpitations and turned pale white. I enjoyed school and did well while I worked nights as a waiter at a nice restaurant. It was a lot easier way to make money than the kinds of jobs I had before. Thelma talked about what a terrible person her father was and I seriously contemplated killing him as a favor to her. This type of thinking was not my normal mode of thought and I can only ascribe it to the fact that I was 20 years old and getting sex on a regular basis from a partner I lived with for the first time. I began to talk bad about her dad too after listening to this diatribe for weeks and she admonished me and just about bit my head off for saying anything bad about him. I don’t claim to understand what was going on in her head but I’m glad I didn’t decide to relieve her of her abusive father. When I hear about someone the same age doing something crazy like killing their girl friends parent as a favor to them I can only sympathize because at that age a person is just plain crazy where sex is involved and they are not entirely responsible for their actions. After a year Thelma left and joined the Coast Guard which was probably good for her because her dad was a coast Guard pilot and she needed some direction in life. I took it kind of hard and got blind drunk and managed for the first time to get thrown in jail for public intoxication. The painful truth is that I made a half hearted attempt to hang myself in my cell with my shoe laces but passed out instead. It seemed like the end of the world but suffice it to say it was not my finest hour. A few days later I started going out with my best friend Jim’s sister and was happy again but he wasn’t too pleased. Judy was 30 years old with a 10 year old daughter and a dysfunctional marriage. She was an actress with a degree in literature and drama who was trying to break into Hollywood but was currently stuck doing theater and made for TV movies. Judy was so beautiful that strangers were immediately drawn to her and they were generally rich jerks who literally showered her with gold and diamonds in hopes of enjoying her affection. She was separated from her husband as well as her actor boyfriend when I showed up on her couch. I was going to school full time and working waiting tables and the night shift at the corner 7-11 and would get off work at dawn and show up at her door. We would make love frantically and passionately a couple of times and I would pass out from exhaustion. When I woke up she would feed me and I would eventually head off to school or work. Judy and I lived together for nearly four years while I worked and went to school. Most of the time I was working full time and going to school full time so my school work would often suffer and I had to drop a lot of classes but I stayed with it. I worked construction jobs and remodeling jobs and finally settled down into a job at the lumber yard driving a fork lift and a large delivery truck. After a while I managed the yard and worked the hours I wanted to. We were alike in temperament and intelligence and very good for each other. She was a very intelligent human being and a very caring person. She helped me in various ways, like once when she attended class and took notes for me one week when I was unable to go due to work. I helped her as well, occasionally helping her prepare for literature exams or even writing her paper when she was extremely pressed for time. Her mother was a very dominant personality who had psychologically abused her as a child and exerted unhealthy control in her day to day life. As a young girl she had once attempted suicide due to this pressure. She seemed to have a nearly malevolent control over her and I confronted her about her behavior toward her daughter. Judy later told me that I was the only one who ever stood up to her mother on her behalf. Since I was twenty years old I never tried to act like a father to her ten year old daughter, I just tried to be her friend. After several years we began to grow apart. It was very sad because we were such good friends and cared about each other very deeply but the intense physical attraction was no longer there for me. It would have been easy to stay with her but I didn’t want to wake up in bed with someone that I felt towards like she was my sister instead of my lover. It was perhaps the hardest thing I had ever done in my life at that time but I walked away from our four year relationship and my best friend. It left me deeply depressed for about a year and I continued school at the University of Houston until I finished my degree in business management. We still saw each other occasionally and even when we hadn’t seen each other for six months or more there was still that tenderness and affection we still felt for each other. After we broke up I drifted for a while and stayed alive delivering pizza and other low wage jobs until my depression slowly lifted. I was taking martial arts to try to snap myself out of my depression and it seemed to be working. I briefly got involved with the girlfriend of my martial arts instructor and decided to stop going to class to stay healthy. I had a job as the manager of a fast food restaurant for a franchise operation and worked tremendous hours and had no personal life. Since I was classified as a manager and paid a monthly salary they could legally work me very long hours and when I figured out the hours I worked it turned out that I made barely more the regular employees I managed who earned minimum wage. I worked there for about a year until I grew tired of working multiple shifts and having no personal life and just decided to quit. I ran into an old friend from the neighborhood named Gary who grew up next door to my best friend Bruce. Gary told me that he had been sick and had a brain tumor and he probably had to have surgery again soon. He didn’t say so but I could see in his eyes that he was very scared about dying. Gary was a cool guy and very intelligent but he had always been kind of brusque or even borderline cruel to people below him, though he was always nice to me we had never been particularly close friends. He looked into my eyes as if asking for help and I wanted to say something to give him comfort but my life was overwhelming me with over work and loneliness and I didn’t have the brave reassuring phrases to share with him. I heard a year later that he had died from his illness and I felt guilty that I didn’t have the perfect thing to tell him so he wouldn’t be afraid. After I quit the restaurant business I got a job on a construction project at a chemical plant working as an instrument technician. We worked 7-12’s which means twelve hours a day, seven days a week. After about two weeks everyone had bleary bloodshot eyes and were so exhausted we were ready to collapse or fight. I climbed up on these huge towers 200 feet off the ground and connected the instrumentation wearing a safety harness. I had no idea what the hell I was doing because I lied my way into the job claiming experience I didn’t have but an older guy took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. I had studied the space program under the Futures Studies program and had gone to school with the astronaut’s kids so naturally I looked for a job at NASA. I began working at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in 1989 as a management information specialist. I didn’t know anything about personal computers or how to repair them much less software, but I had a brief job building computers and replacing hard drives and drivers. I answered the ad for a job interview and was told I would have a test on how to replace a computer hard drive. I quickly took the computer apart and replaced the hard drive and got the job. I tried to learn on the job and after two weeks it looked like they were going to fire me because it became obvious I didn’t know much. I came in early that morning and replaced the jumpers on a scientist’s pc and fixed his hard drive when at least half a dozen other people, including the scientists and my boss had tried to fix it and failed. I had saved my job in this last minute maneuver. They couldn’t very well fire me when I was able to fix something that none of them had been able to figure out. I enjoyed working around all the PhD’s and the atmosphere of planetary research and they were very accepting of my ideas which surprised me. It was the first time anyone had ever called me an intellectual. The scientists who came to lecture were the tops in their field and usually only about a dozen people in the world knew about or understood what they were researching. I learned a lot about geology, volcanology, astrophysics, planetary science, and all kinds of related subjects but after a couple of years I felt like the job was going nowhere and started looking for something better. I bought a camera and began to go out into a nature preserve and do nature photography. It was a hobby that turned into my great escape. I was getting lots of great plates of mycology (mushrooms) and began trying to get enough specimens together for a book on the local mycology. I took a lot of photos of birds and snakes and every conceivable form of life in the bayou. The swamp is a very challenging environment and in the beginning I found it a hostile place of alligators and spiders and poisonous snakes among other things. Over time I became more and more at home in the bayou and eventually grew to think of myself as a swamp rat that really loved this type of environment. I took my dog out into the woods with me and we stalked deer and I let him track and chase them. He loved the chase and they easily bounded away from him. The osprey and hawks and great horned owls nested in the bayou and I photographed them catching fish and other prey. The woods and swamps were my refuge and for years I walked alone there with my camera and my dog. During the time I worked at LPI I lived with a girl named Lori who lived and worked in the same apartment complex as I did. We had started seeing each other and I liked her but suggested that perhaps the relationship was not such a good idea. She told me that what we had was beautiful and rare and it was plain to see that she was very much in love so after a while I told her she might as well move in with me. She was cute and fun to be with but she had a troubled background and as much as we tried after about two years we were just not close anymore. It was at this time that I began to read the works of Joseph Campbell that had such an effect on my later life. He was interviewed on public television and Lori was kind enough to buy his books for me which eventually started me down an entirely new path in life…the path I had been searching for in the woods. We separated after two years and I got a job at McDonald Douglas working on the space station project doing basically the same thing as before for more money and a chance at promotion. I dated an engineer while I worked there who was tall and intelligent and encouraged me to start a career in the sciences. We shared a lot with each other and would stay up all night talking. We lived together for a while and even though we were terribly close there was a previous relationship and children involved and so we did what we both thought was right and she went back to her partner and I went on alone. I was still working for McDonald Douglas Space Station Corporation when I saw Lori again and we got back together again but that was a huge mistake. I was so lonely that I felt like I was dying from the effects of being alone so I made a bad decision that I knew was bad. I was living alone in a big house at the time and my grandfather was suffering from heart disease and my mom had major health problems as well so I was traveling to see them both for several weeks. When I got back home my house had been trashed from when Lori held a massive party and the neighbors were angry enough to complain to my landlord and get me put out of the house. I decided it was time to change my life again in a way that would lead to something more satisfying spiritually. I quit working for McDonald Douglas and began substitute teaching and went back to school to get a teaching certificate. For the next year I worked as a substitute teacher to make sure it was what I wanted to do until I completed classes in linguistics and the other course work necessary. Then I began to apply to different schools around Houston using the temporary teaching certificate that I had earned. I wanted to do something idealistic and humanitarian. I wanted to work somewhere without the office politics and nepotism that I had encountered at McDonald Douglas and NASA. My mom’s father passed away from heart disease and we went to the hospital in San Antonio for weeks to visit him before he died. Papa had smoked cigarettes for nearly forty years and had quit for about ten years due to emphysema. He had taught me how to play checkers and chess and how to hunt and fish. He had been a principal and school superintendent for forty years and when he retired he taught himself how to make pottery and bought a motor home and drove all around the nation to festivals selling his pottery and sightseeing. He was in an eight story hospital nearly full with people suffering from heart disease. I had tried to quit smoking cigarettes for several years but after we lost Papa I quit smoking and considered it one of the major accomplishments of my life. I got a job teaching second grade on the north side of town near Intercontinental Airport and I moved into a barrio near Memorial Park. The idea behind moving to the barrio was to learn to speak Spanish more quickly through the process of immersion. I moved into a nice apartment first and then changed to small house nearby because it was less insulated and in closer proximity to Spanish speaking neighbors. The neighbors were all exclusively people from Central America who had fled the aftermath of civil wars and bad economic conditions. My landlord rented about three other little houses out to about twelve other people. I lived in a house by myself while they lived four to a house. The neighbors slowly got used to having an Anglo in the neighborhood and we would sit around and talk together or go out to the cantinas in the area. I was a novelty and the family across the street kind of adopted me and would feed me and kind of acted as my sponsor and protector. I was very happy living there after a while and learned Spanish quickly from just hanging around and talking because that it what people do in a small town with few resources. The cluster of the Central American community felt like a small town in the middle of Houston, a city of three million people.
Guatemala was probably the farthest thing from my mind in 1993 because I had gotten my teaching certificate and started to teach ESL (English as a second language). The theory in educational circles was that if a child comes to the US and is dropped into regular classes they lose a couple of years before they catch up, or drop out completely. It makes sense if you think about it. The old folks in my family told me how they had been pulled out of their community school in the Texas Hill Country and sent to regular school at the age of six speaking only German. Before WWI the German immigrants had their own schools that taught them their history, language, music, and culture from the old country. During WWI when everything German was a curse word the Germans learned they had better fit in completely or pay a heavy price. Even the old cemeteries that did not change their names to something like the George Washington Cemetery were subject to organized vandalism. The message was clear, assimilate or be driven out and destroyed. So if your name was Schmidt you changed it to Smith and closed down your traditional school after generations of educational tradition, abandoned your culture and sent your German speaking children to the English only public schools. The old farmers in my family didn’t recall the experience too fondly and that had been 80 years ago. I had grown weary of working for NASA where the romance had worn off and filing out everything in triplicate and living the life of a soulless bureaucrat in the bowels of a government agency was starting to eat away at me. It had only taken a couple of years but I wanted out bad. I was still in my twenties, just barely, and the idealism of youth had not given way to the practical cynicism of middle age. I had no wife and children to encumber my decisions about losing out on the big pay check and being responsible, practical, and stolid. Truth be told I was a bleeding heart who was going to save the world one child at a time. Even if it took a year or two longer than I imagined it would. I peeled the parchment off the wall at NASA, said goodbye to my boss who had never gone near a space craft, didn’t have the right stuff and never would, and went back to school for a few linguistics classes. After a 6 months transformation into a linguistics whiz kid I took my half assed Spanish and headed out onto the sky scrapper encrusted cow pastures of the Gulf Coast with stars in my eyes…again. I found a job teaching kids fresh off the boat how to speak the kings English. They were 14 or they were 20 or somewhere in between and they had stars in their eyes too. These were really good kids from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Vietnam, Korea, you know, the future. Most people were afraid of it but I had vowed to embrace it and make it my own somehow. Some of the children had parents that were highly educated corporate climbers who had wound up with a posting in Houston, the town that oil and air conditioning built. Some of the kids were refugees from civil war who had spent most of their lives moving from place to place in the jungle trying to not get killed. These kids had never sat in a desk in their lives and had barely progressed beyond the third grade. Things started off really well and we did plays like getting two people to get up in front of the class and drive to the grocery store, buy some milk and some ice cream (welcome to America) climb back in the car and drive home. I used country music to teach grammar and we constructed and deconstructed the English language until they could successfully go to the store and get what they wanted without too much trouble. I had never been a teacher before and I really liked it. They transferred their love for their parental units onto me and I soaked it in, but it made me a lousy teacher. Speaking of parental transference, I had a friend who was 86 years young and who once told me that I wouldn’t fit in well and why. “You know too much and that makes you dangerous…and you don’t put up with any bullshit”. Bless him he has a way with words but all that wisdom of old age did not get me out of the fix that I was in…I was still me. It wasn’t four weeks into the first school year that I pissed of the administrators and a couple of teachers as well. The administrators didn’t fit my conception of educators. They made up rules for the teachers and kids to follow and generally seemed to my mind to get in the way of teaching. I brought my bicycle to class and took the children out into the parking lot and let them take turns riding it around in slow circles. Like the make believe plays of going to the store the idea is to twin the action of doing to the words that go with them. Half of the students had never been on a bike in their lives so I briefly taught them to ride and they learned some verbs. The administrators heard about it and you would have thought that I brought a rattle snake to school and made them handle it while I taught ecology. The walkie talkies came out and they ran around and generally had an enormous cow. I just couldn’t see that I had done the students anything other than a favor and taught them some vocabulary while I was at it. This was how the year went in general and as it progressed I was viewed more and more as a bad seed that had to be brought to heel. I thought they were a bunch of bureaucrats that had never taught a class room full of students in their lives, much less kids that didn’t speak English. I thought they treated the kids poorly and when a teacher got out of line for real and put their hands on a child in anger they didn’t do a damn thing about it. I got along great with almost all of the other teachers with one glaring exception. She was middle aged, anorexic with a lot of emotional baggage that went back a long way. She was kind of attracted to me but I interpreted it as being demeaning like patting me on the head in front of the other teachers and students so I told her to cut the crap and keep her hands to herself. This episode early in the year seemed to tear something lose in her head and she went a little crazy on me, but as my grandfather once said, that was a short put. One thing you have to remember is that teaching is by and large the preserve of women. They will always say over and over again that they wish that more men would teach but this should not be taken at face value. The female teachers and administrators tend to view teaching as their turf and if you enter their sphere of influence in this traditional bastion of female professionalism you are either a coach or a principle. If you are not a coach or a principle then you are in some strange way stepping on their toes. This is their territory and you will only do well if you let them emasculate you. I know this sounds like a terribly sexist and chauvinistic thing to say but if you don’t play a supporting role so to speak then you might be in for big trouble. Combine this psychology with the fragile personality previously spoken of and you might even get the perfect storm. Not only did this poor woman talk bad about me behind my back and try to get me fired, she went to the other teachers in her “sphere of influence” and tried to get them to shun me in the good old fashioned sense. I got the triple whammy, the daily verbal assaults directed at me like comments about me being inappropriately dressed, crazy, ugly, mean, any kind of verbal insult she could think of came my way every single day. She was a veteran teacher with connections so some of the junior teachers who needed her approval to keep their jobs followed the lead and got brownie points by sticking verbal barbs in me at every opportunity. You would think this wouldn’t have much effect but after several months you begin to dread getting out of bed in the morning and showing up at work. You don’t even want to go near the place. She poisoned the well with the administrators who already thought I was a problem and were only too happy to see things her way, despite evidence to the contrary. Her personal problem with me was so bad that she even did things like take books and other personal items from the locked rooms of other teachers and place them in my room hoping to get me fired. I told you she had baggage right? The shine had worn off the school year and when it came to an end I breathed a sigh of relief and took my eight weeks off like the liberation of Paris. I did a lot of nature photography and that summer the woods were full of ticks, I mean FULL of ticks. On certain years as I plied my hobby of nature photography there was not one to be seen while this particular year they were crawling on me and my dog by the dozens every time I went out. Nature photography was my version of Zen or yoga, it was my religion and when I grew up I wanted to be a great nature photographer like Wyman Minzer or some such thing that was unattainable. On three separate occasions that year a tick made its way slowly up my pants undetected to just above my belt line on my left side and attached itself, or bit me as I tried to get it off before it did attach. It was the exact same place each time and each time I had the exact same symptoms. The bite became red and inflamed like a large red dot that was about the size of a half dollar. The pain was intense enough to double me over and I it treated the bite with hydrocortisone. After about 3-4 days it went away and everything seemed fine. Then about two weeks later the bite returned as if by magic only now the red dot was even larger and surrounded by a giant red circle like a bulls eye in darts. The pain was even more intense than before and it stayed even longer the second time, then as before it simply vanished. I had been bitten by everything in nature short of a poisonous snake or a bear, but this series of symptoms that happened three times in one year was beyond all my experience. Years later when I was trying to figure out why I was so sick I looked up Lyme disease and tick borne illness in the medical literature. The earliest reference that I could find (1880) was by a veterinarian in south Texas who described the spirochete of the genus Bergdorfi that was taking a terrible toll on cattle. In other words these same ticks were biting big strapping Long Horns and Brahma Bulls that got sick and dropped dead. I guess it was just one of those heavy tick years in 1880 just like in 1993. In June of that year I took my savings and rented a cabin in northern New Mexico on a river that my grandparents had fished since the 1930’s. It was our favorite family place to vacation and the first time I went I was two years old. My dad went every year until he was 21 and in college. I loaded up the old folks and my dad in my orange 1979 VW van and headed up into the mountains. No sooner had we crossed the state line than word spread of a mysterious illness that had perfectly healthy people dropping dead in their tracks. We were not to be dissuaded from our holiday but as we went the more timid souls were either fleeing the state or talking in hushed tones about the mystery disease that had killed a dozen or more. They seemed intent somehow on blaming it on the Indians. The fish were jumping and the amateurs all fled in haste and fear so we pretty much had the river to ourselves. It was a treat to see my grandparents back on the river they loved so much and the two weeks went by quickly. I woke before the sunrise every morning and headed out to the mouth of the river where it came out of the Box, a deep crevice with sheer sides that rose up a thousand feet or more on either side. The river had a hypnotic effect on me and I fished as an afterthought. The rod and reel were kind of an excuse to be out on the river and among the giant trees that lined the landscape. It was like a land that time had forgotten and where I could forget myself. I didn’t feel well the rest of the summer and reported back to work in the fall of ’93 in a halfhearted manner. I wasn’t looking forward to teaching because I had imagined that it would be the antithesis of the NASA experience but had discovered that the purity of teaching had turned out to be like the bureaucracy and office politics I had tried to escape. The year started out exactly the same and the administrators seemed to be examining my back to try to figure out where the dagger should go. Surely I was imagining it, a persecution complex? The same 3-4 teachers led by that poor disturbed anorexic woman seemed intent on making me miserable. Christmas came and went and I tried to be a better teacher for the students and follow the rules but something was missing in me, the romance was over and it wasn’t coming back anytime real soon. My schedule was changed and I was given more students than anyone else, no teachers aid was in my class like the other teachers had. My text books that I was supposed to get at the beginning of the school year did not show up until the 9th week of class. I was forced to read to my students and to improvise as best I could while I waited for the text books that everyone else had. The administrators and the hostile teachers made fun of me for reading to the students but I couldn’t figure what else I was supposed to do. Was it possible that the larger class, the missing teachers aid, the missing text books, the 15 minutes for lunch and no time for a bathroom breaks were part of a campaign to punish me? I felt that these professionals would not short change the students just to get to me. The verbal attacks that were aimed at harassing me and breaking me down continued and I felt like there was no one that I could appeal to for relief. The disturbed woman became more brazen in her behavior, even pushing students around, knocking the books out of their hands, scratching them until they bled, and striking them in the face. She was a veteran teacher who had friends high up in the school district and she obviously felt invulnerable. It was a strange experience and I contemplated going back to substitute teaching like I had for a year before I started the ESL program. I dreaded getting up in the morning and going to school. The previous year I had made a decision to perfect my Spanish and the best way to learn is the technique called immersion. You put yourself in an environment where nothing but Spanish is spoken and you totally immerse yourself by hearing nothing else. It is a kind of sink or swim technique that forces you to learn a primitive grammar and then to discard that one and adopt a better one, and so on. I moved into what is referred to as a combat zone in Houston. My immediate neighbors were all from Central America, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, most of them had known each other in their home countries and had settled in the inner city. Some had come fleeing civil war while others came for economic opportunity. It consisted of about 20 people in that small area of about 8 houses but they had friends who visited on the weekends. I rented a small decrepit house among them but since I lived alone and they lived 4-5 to a house they considered me lucky. We socialized together and I came to be friends with many of them. I fished on the coast often and brought fresh fish that I shared and bought my fair share of the beer. I ate in their homes and we sat together at the end of the day and watched the sun go down. On the weekends we would go to cantinas together and drink and dance with pretty girls. The neighborhood was dangerous to live in and after dark even groups of people were not safe walking around. I would read the paper and people were shot or stabbed to death by strangers with alarming frequency. A few Anglos lived in the neighborhood and they were artists. They had large compounds that were surrounded with razor wire and they owned large aggressive dogs. I was the only Caucasian who lived outside of razor wire. I had a cocker spaniel. We looked out for each other and generally no one bothered us, save the occasional crack head. At first my Spanish was poor and I only understood part of what was said to me but after a while my ear picked up and I spoke more. I really liked living there after a while because life was very humble and people treated each other like people who live in a small village. There was gossip and affairs, and fights and the ties that bind people together. We were no longer strangers to each other and I tried to be a good neighbor and they were kind to me. I was the only gringo who ever bothered to come down there much less live among them. Life was rather hard and in the end all we had was each other.
The month of March was just around the corner and my neighbor who I liked was planning on traveling to Guatemala to see his family. He was a steady guy who was a hard worker and he was smart. He asked me if I wanted to come with him and drive to Guatemala over the Spring Break. I had three weeks of freedom coming and I could think of no better way to spend it than to drive to Guatemala and stay with the local people and meet his family and friends. Who knows what kinds of adventures I might experience. It was terra incognita, the undiscovered country. Guatemala is referred to as the land of eternal spring. What could possibly go wrong in the land of eternal spring? My friend’s girlfriend had recently given birth and she was making his life difficult and refused to let him share his child. He became depressed that she would not let him see his child and was using the child as a tool to manipulate him. He told me that he could no longer accompany me and that he had to stay and work but we were in luck, his godfather, the head man of his village or neighborhood was in town and he would take me in his car to Guatemala. “He can make sure you get there safe and take you to a hotel”. “I have known him all my life, since I was a little kid”. “His name is Ramulio and he buys cars and appliances here at auctions and flea markets and takes them back to Guatemala to sell”. “It is what he does for a living, people really like the small Toyota trucks and toys and clothes, stuff they don’t make down there”. “He comes up here and buys the consumer goods and then goes back and sells them”. “The cars he buys and takes back, does a little work on them and sells them and he has money to live on for 3-4 months and then he does it again”. I was anxious to change my state of mind because the constant pecking at me had worn me down over time and I was depressed and angry. A change in location might add up to a change in reality. I really love to travel and travel can literally knock you out of your complacency. We go through our lives and settle into a routine that has a comfortable sameness about it. The routine doesn’t challenge us and we wind up going to work traveling the same route, meeting the same people and saying the same platitudes to each other without deviation. The well worn paths of our lives turn into a rut. So like rats in a maze that walk the same path over and over again, we can begin to lose all spontaneity and originality. Life should not be a routine it should be an adventure, but it rarely is anything more than the old saying, same old stuff different day. I agreed to drive with a stranger for 1,200 miles to a country I had never been before and knew next to nothing about. I would be as far from my world as I could get. My friend’s “godfather” was a man of few words. He was a stocky and solid 5’9” tall and he walked with a pronounced limp from a profound injury to his right calf and his left bicep. The left arm was so damaged that it was useless to him. It seemed to hang suspended in air in the same curved position in front of his chest. He wore a brown jacket, blue jeans and boots and his locomotion was such that he moved from left to right as he traveled forward. I helped him secure his load of consumer goods and prepare for the long journey. He had been very busy at the car auction and the flea market. An oversized light blue Chevy suburban was towing a tan Toyota pickup truck. Both vehicles were loaded down with kid’s bicycles, clothes, appliances, and all manner of things to sell and give away to family and friends. He was a gruff Santa Claus of few words and I didn’t ask him any questions. He seemed shy, deferential, and almost fearful of his unfamiliar surroundings, like a fish out of water. Morning came and my neighbor friend bid us farewell and we piled into the car and headed out onto the Houston freeway and headed south towards the Mexican border. He drove like a little old lady on her way to church and I asked him if he wanted me to drive for a while, but he made it clear in his moderately poor English that he was going to do all the driving. I agreed that this was an excellent idea and tried to talk to him a little bit but his mediocre English and my mediocre Spanish made it nearly painful after an hour so I shut up and tried to relax. We seemed bring out the worst in each other, he was very defensive as I tried to build a false camaraderie. He reminded me of a Guatemalan Archie Bunker, he was very jingoistic and dogmatic in his attitude. Everything American was crap and everything Guatemalan was good. I was trying to find common ground with him but I wound up in opposition to most of his attitudes. When he bragged that the women of Guatemala were the most beautiful in the world I found myself telling him the women of my country were better, even though I had never been to Guatemala and seen the people there. He used the term gringo like a curse word and said bad things about my government and I found myself on the opposite side of all his arguments. This man was a hard guy to get to like, especially since he seemed to become more confident and more hostile the closer we came to the Mexican border. He had been quiet and shy because he was afraid of his environment in the United States, but now that we were within an hour of the border he seemed to drive faster and talk more, most of it diatribes about the gringos and the US government. I didn’t like him very much but we were stuck together for a couple of days so I decided to try to make the most of it until I could get to Guatemala and get the hell away from him. I tried to change the subject to less confrontational issues and he told me about his business importing goods. The small pickups were very popular in Central America, so he would take the vehicle to a friend who would repair it somewhat and he would sell it and the other goods and make enough to live on for 3-4 months until which time he planned to turn around and repeat the exercise all over again. We got to the border and drove into a giant fenced in parking lot covered in gravel that was soon filled up with several hundred other nearly identical pilgrims with small cars and Toyota pickup trucks in tow, every one of them filled with all manner of consumer goods that could not be readily purchased in Central America. In the American press the politicians were trumpeting that free trade meant there was a giant sucking sound of American jobs headed across the border. It looked to me like the giant sucking sound was every last second hand Toyota car and truck and Chevy suburban and the contents of every flea market headed south. The lot we parked in was a clearing check point run by the Texas Department of Public Safety (state highway patrol) to verify that none of the cars were stolen. Romulio felt victimized by this process, complaining that it took too long and that they had to pay tax on the goods and that coming the other way no one was treated in this manner. It seemed to me that it was run in a rather high handed manner and that he may have had a point. We were stuck there over night so we slept in the car and ate breakfast the next morning in a private residence, the home of a Hispanic lady who spoke no English and fed you a nice breakfast for about $5. It was kind of homey and quiet sitting there in her kitchen and I felt at peace for the first time in my journey. Trying to speak Spanish all the time when you weren’t used to it kind of wore me out after a few hours and Romulio was lousy company anyway. We cleared the check point in a few hours and left the gravel pen surrounded in razor wire and headed quickly through the Mexican side, and then made for the open road. The coastal area was kind of flat and sparse and it reminded me of the US side, lots of scrub vegetation that made up a flood plain that was only good for a few scraggly cows and absorbing the moisture from the odd hurricane. We stopped and ate dinner at a small diner with a guy headed in the same direction. He was good natured and friendly as I shoveled beans and rice into me as fast as I could. I half considered catching a ride with him instead but I decided to finish what I started. While we were eating several caravans of fellow travelers pulled up and I recognized some familiar faces from the check point. After eating Romulio went over and talked to them for a few minutes, but I held back by the cars, ostensibly to guard them, but I was already road weary and speaking Spanish for nearly two days had worn my meager mental faculties out. When Romulio went to the bathroom before we left one of the four guys he was talking to came over and said hello. “Be careful my friend, that guy (Romulio) is crazy”. He held my gaze after his parting word to deliver the point home and gage my reaction. “I know what you mean, he is kind of nuts”. He shrugged as if he had tried to do what he could and was not happy with the result, but it was out of his hands. Night found us still driving on the flat plains by the coast north of Vera Cruz and the moonlight came out and turned the short scrub vegetation from green to lavender. The moon cast the shadow of the trucks out to the right and I watched as the ghost image glided upon the tops of the vegetation and sandy soil. “Hey, Romulio, how did you get hurt”, referring to his arm and leg. He looked like Captain Hook without the hook. “It was a motorcycle accident”, he said. He clammed up tight so I didn’t ask him anything else. We had been driving all night without rest for nearly two days so about 3 a.m. Romulio pulled the truck off on the side of the road and we tried to sleep. The attempt at sleep in the cab of the truck was a failure for both of us so after nearly an hour we pulled back onto the road and continued on. We made Vera Cruz by noon and I learned how to navigate a four way intersection in Mexico. The four-way stop is not actually a stop, the general rule is that the vehicle that gets there first honks its horn as a warning and guns the motor to pass through before a collision occurs. Because we were towing a car and both vehicles were completely loaded down this method was fraught with peril, we simply could not stop on a dime and the locals were very glad to challenge any car that was close. After a couple of close calls Romulio began to mumble to himself and shortly this conversation resulted in a new strategy. He decided to take the toll road and avoid the city entirely. The toll road was immaculate, straight as an arrow, very expensive at the cost of $8, and hence it was completely deserted. The road surface was so pristine it seemed we might have been the first car to traverse it, and at that price it was entirely possible. Traveling through Mexico we would hit a police road block every 200 miles or so that was a study in creative bargaining. The various caravans of Central Americans were expected to pay a mordita, or ‘little bite”, an unofficial toll that was negotiated with the local constabulary. Police pay was apparently so meager that they were forced to supplement their income with small donations that consisted of less than $10 per car load. However, some of the caravans that perhaps rubbed them the wrong way or were suspicious in their demeanor were forced to make gifts to the police of a substantial part of their load of consumer goods. This was a crap shoot that depended upon the negotiating skills of the drivers. Romulio was very deferential to the Mexican police and very glad to have me donate $5 to the cause of the police happiness fund. We developed a system of good cop bad cop where he would smile profusely and seem as if he had found a long lost family member in the person of the police officer, and I, being the evil gringo, would feint poverty and only proffer a fraction of what Romulio felt like he thought the good officer deserved. It can be hell continually being the evil gringo but I learned to live with it. The younger caravan drivers who had the temerity to dispute the amount of the mordita and didn’t have an evil gringo to fall back on sometimes found themselves delivering over a significant portion of their goods as a gift if they ever wished to see home again. Romulio and I got so good at our routine that the bribes we paid were generally about $2. We drove across the entirety of Mexico with two hours of fitful sleep in the cab of the truck and I was getting kind of giddy from the road. We drove all night and it seemed to help because there were no road blocks in the middle of the night. The interior of Mexico was completely different than the north. The vegetation was now lush and trees and orchards and ranches made up the landscape. Farther south I discerned what seemed to be a process at work that remade the lush landscape of trees and jungle. First the logging operations would come in and clear the jungle for the valuable hardwood. Then the newly cleared land was often converted to orchards of lemon and other cash crops. After the soil was wrung dry the ranches took over and fat expensive cattle wandered back and forth until their time had come. Finally when the soil was denuded of all that it could offer up to man or beast the poor farmers were allowed to move in and one lean farmer armed with only a machete and fire worked the land to scratch out a living, if you can call it that, for himself, his wife, and his numerous children that managed to survive their early childhood. The process seemed to move south toward the remaining jungles that still stood pristine at the farthest tip of the country. Romulio had grown more jingoistic and hostile with each passing mile. I noticed that the banana trees were carefully tended and that the bunches of bananas on the trees were covered in a course net to protect them. “Why are the bananas covered like that’, I asked. “Those are covered to keep them nice and beautiful and in perfect condition for the good for nothing gringos”. This guy hated my guts and he didn’t even know me. One minute he would be talking about the good for nothing Indians in his home country and the next minute he would declare proudly that he was of Indian heritage. He seemed to hate himself as well so I tried not to take it too personally. If I wasn’t paying for a third of the gas and all the morditas I had a feeling he would have dumped my “good for nothing gringo ass” on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. The week before I started my journey to the south the Indians in the south of Mexico had taken up arms, declared war, and taken over three towns in southern Mexico. They had surrounded the local garrisons of Mexican troops and killed those that did not surrender. Then they promptly took all of the land deeds out of the town hall and burned them ceremonially in the square. It seemed that they resented having their lands stolen, the jungles bulldozed and burned, and the thieves planting orchards and running cattle on what remained. They held the towns for a couple of days and then melted back into the jungle. The Mexican army and government were not too happy that their authority had been challenged and that they had been made to look powerless. This was an example that might spread to the other indigenous people in the northwest and other parts of the country that objected to being second class citizens with no rights to their own land. The Mexican army moved into the south and began to shoot rebels and anyone they suspected of being a rebel. Every person of Indian descent was suspect and liable to the ultimate punishment. The Mexican air force began to strafe people traveling on the roads in an effort to prove their impotence and cruelty. Road blocks sprang up in the south like mushrooms after rain and when the local people approached them on horseback their eyes would grow as large as dinner plates in undisguised fear and abject terror. The entire 50,000 military was mobilized and on the hunt primarily for one man. The leader of the uprising was a mysterious figure who, like all the Zapatista rebels, wore a dark ski mask that obscured his features. Subcomandante Marcos, as he was called, was an Anglo looking character who had green eyes, brown hair, and smoked a pipe. He had lived among the Indians and taught them Marxist theory (so it was said) and military tactics. Every man in their army was an equal and all men had given themselves up for dead in their struggle to retain their land. “We are all offerings to the common pit”, they said. The mystery man with green eyes that stared intently from beneath the ski mask with his European features was rumored to be a South American, a European, and even an American. I had seen his photograph and I didn’t consider myself a good likeness of the man, but to foreign eyes, you know what they say, “They all look alike to me”. Romulio had been calling me Subcomandante Marcos in jest for the last 500 miles but now that we were in the south it was no longer that funny. Every road block we had crossed in the south the military and interior ministry police were giving me the hard eye. I know I didn’t really look very much like him, but the locals were in terror of the road blocks, and the farther south we went the closer scrutiny I received. “Hey, Subcommandante Marcos, here is another road block, get your mask out”. “God damn it Romulio stop calling me that or they’ll take us both out in the jungle”. My reasoning seemed to reach him and he didn’t call me that again. This road block was the busiest one yet. There were 4-5 cars stopped in front of us and the interior ministry police and military were all over the place. Romulio started to sweat profusely and squirm around in his seat. Ahead of use people were being taken out of their cars and walked off to the right of the road behind a long brick wall where no one could see what transpired. It was all done under the direction of one man in plain clothes who sported a bushy mustache on a cruel hard face whose eyes were hidden behind mirror sunglasses. He had no outward sign of authority other than a .38 pistol hanging out of the back pocket of his jeans. The man with no eyes nodded at a driver or passenger and the unfortunate was taken away by a uniformed man behind the wall out of sight. These people exuded a different feel than the ones I had seen at road blocks before. The man with no eyes held the power of life and death in his hands. He was a man used to giving orders and having them followed. He was also a man who was used to taking human life. It was there to see in the way he stood and the expressionless look on his face that communicated distain and despite for the people around him. He was the leader of a death squad, you could either fear him or defy him, but he could not be ignored. I made up my mind in about a minute. I opened the door of the suburban and casually walked off to the side of the road and up to the brick wall. “What the hell are you doing”, Romulio said. I ignored him completely. We were still three cars back from the action but the man with no eyes locked his mirrored sunglasses on me before I took a step and didn’t take them off of me. I casually and slowly made my way up to the wall, stretching my legs as I went. I unzipped my jeans like it was the most natural thing to do in the world and let out a healthy stream onto the wall. I relieved myself with pleasure and took my time shaking my tool dry, then casually zipped my jeans back up and slowly walked back to the car. Romulio was covered in sweat and near a state of panic. I had yet to see him sweat even though the temperature was around 90 degrees. “Please get back in the car”. He was in distress and practically begging. There was an interior ministry officer walking up to the car as I settled back into the passenger seat. He walked up to the driver’s side and looked our load over once and began to tell Romulio that he needed something to eat. They decided on five dollars as usual and I pulled three dollars from my wallet like it was my last three bucks. “Oh well, only three dollars, I’m sorry”. “It’s not important I can eat some lunch today”. He waved us through and even before we cleared the check point Romulio had already looked over at me three times as if he wanted to ask me if I was crazy. I glanced once at the man with no eyes as we drew even with him. He didn’t look at me this time, but stared off into the distance as if to let me admire his profile. I was just glad I wasn’t an Indian behind that wall. A few hours farther down the road the jungle grew even more thick and lush and we gradually seemed to be going downhill more. The sun hung lower in the sky and we both grew hungry and decided to stop in the next little town to eat. We slowed as we passed through a small village of about a dozen or more houses and saw what looked like a restaurant with no cars in front of it. It looked closed as we passed by it but we were hungry and turned around to pull into the parking lot. Directly across the street was a small building that served as a slaughter house. The stone building had no windows or doors just openings to the elements and the amount of blood in evidence seemed incredible. Freshly slaughtered large animals hung on hooks and the walls and floors were covered in blood. Impossibly several men were visible through the door way sitting on the floor in the middle of the carnage and gore with their backs to the wall resting after their labors. We both stared in amazement and the men began to laugh at us in a manner less than friendly. The interior of the restaurant was very dark and empty, the owner was eager to serve us but after a few minutes the atmosphere of the town unsettled both of us. I didn’t say anything but everything felt wrong here and when Romulio said we should go I didn’t hesitate. We piled into the suburban and looked across the street again at the macabre scene. The men still sat in the blood covered room beneath the carcasses, laughing at us in an unspoken threat. Romulio was even more shaken than I was. It had been a strange day and the sun was fading fast as we accelerated and headed down hill. Night came quickly and the jungle seemed to close in on us like it hadn’t before. The road had changed drastically to a tight curve that hugged the mountain side as we descended towards the Pacific coast. I looked out over the jungle below me and the moon that hung over it and I felt like I was descending into something beyond my control, somehow if I didn’t turn back now I knew that I would never escape. I am not given to superstition but the sense of terrible destiny come over me and stayed. Immediately after that strange feeling had come over me for several long miles I saw a sight that seemed to be an apparition from the poet Homer. A beautiful woman, and then a mile farther another one and another one, all standing alone on the right side of the road at the edge of the jungle in the dark lit only by coals burning at their feet in a brazier. The women all beckoned to me by raising their right arm from their side up to shoulder height with their open hands facing palm down. They were beckoning for us to stop and take our comfort with them by the side of the road. Their long dark hair hung luxuriantly down and they would pull it over their right shoulder and let it hang down past their waist. I could not believe my eyes and looked over at my companion but he seemed unmoved or perhaps blind. “Did you see that, let’s stop, come on please, what’s the matter with you”. I was the one practically begging now. “Many people stop and are never heard from again, she has friends waiting for you in the dark”. I was willing to take my chances but Romulio was implacable. The death squads, the slaughter house, and the feeling I had had of some awful destiny before me, now this, the sirens of the jungle…it put me in a poor mood to say the least. I held my tongue since Romulio would not stop under any circumstances, and I didn’t want to provoke him. The day had seemed to improve his disposition while it made me feel down. To make things worse now logging trucks were traveling up the mountain road past us on the tight curves. Though we had the inside track next to the mountain, there was no shoulder to give way, just a sheer wall of soil and rocks. The logging trucks were driven by bored men who traveled the same route every night and day and apparently needed some relief from this boredom so they played a little game. The name of the game was see how close you can come to the car traveling the opposite way. We had been driving for three days without sleep and now we found ourselves in a game of chicken with fully loaded logging trucks barreling up the narrow mountain road at break neck speeds. There was no way to evade them as they crossed over the center line to blast us with a shock wave that seemed to echo in our ears and hit us like a physical force. This torture seemed to go on for hours and I was sure we lost the side mirror more than once. We would have pulled over but there was no place to pull over or turn off, so we just endured it. Finally we came to the edge of a great plateau that looked down upon the Pacific coast. Instead of heading to the coast we followed a road that turned left toward the south and the Mexican Guatemalan border. Late at night we stopped at a truck stop to eat an overpriced meal that was the worst food yet. A pretty young woman and an equally pretty young boy worked the truck stop, servicing the lonely drivers as they made their way back and forth across the border. The young woman followed me into the restaurant and smiled at me and tossed her hair. I had been on the road now it seemed like for weeks and I was in the wild wild west where it seemed all the rules were a thing of the past. The idea appealed to me because life on this road seemed short and my disappointment at passing the beautiful sirens had cost me no small amount. Romulio seemed not to care so I finished my meal and went outside where she waited for me. We slowly walked together towards the truck and then I saw the cop again that had been hanging around like some kind of uniformed seagull. He was about 20 years old, a big kid who looked like he couldn’t read or write and even had a hard time getting his brown uniform on correctly. It was ill fitting and he looked like an oversized baby sporting an M-1 rifle. When I had seen him before he was pacing around trying to figure out who to arrest and how he could extort enough money from them to get through the week. Now he was following me and the girl to the truck which was amateurish by itself because all he had to do was wait until we were en flagrante and then he could have walked up on us unnoticed and extorted plenty of money from me. I looked at the girl in a mute apology and gestured to Romulio that it was time to go. Now I was the one in a hurry. For the fourth time in my journey a man who was heading south and had stopped to talk to Romulio walked up to me and said, “Be careful, that guy is crazy”. The road to the border was not something you could really call a road. All the trucks were forced to go about 10 miles per hour to avoid the giant pot holes and keep the ruts from shaking you out of your seat. It felt like riding a jack hammer for 20 miles. I guess the constant truck traffic had destroyed the road and no one had bothered to rebuild it. It was morning by the time we reached the border and we paid a few bribes and made our way in fairly short order. The Guatemalan side of the border was more strict and we were forced to park the trucks and wait around for several hours. The sun was very intense and I was in for a hard lesson about the tropics. I didn’t feel well and so I drank a couple of beers in a cantina and passed out for an hour. The ugly American passed out in the bar, no doubt snoring loudly. Finally we loaded back up and drove through the final check point with the long line of cars. The border guard looked over our cargo and asked if we had anything to declare. Romulio seemed nervous again, “Just one microwave oven and one gringo”. “One microwave and one gringo’, the guard repeated. I bristled and let it piss me off, maybe it was because I felt ill or maybe it was no sleep for three days but I seemed to shake with anger. The guard didn’t say anything but he looked at me kindly as if to say don’t worry about it friend. We hit the open road finally and were making good time when to Guatemalan military officers in green uniforms, border guards actually, pulled us over and checked our cargo against the documents. They didn’t ask for bribes, were very professional and it was obvious they were trying to interdict weapons smuggling. It just took two minutes and we were back on our way. We were chatting to pass the time and Romulio volunteered that he used to work for the Guatemalan Defense Intelligence Agency. I guess I should have been more impressed. “What did you do for them”? “We intercepted communications from the Mexican military”. “They attacked us and took a lot of land from our country”. “Isn’t your country controlled by the military and the intelligence services”, I asked. I was trying to push his buttons. “No more than your country is controlled by the CIA”, he sneered. I took exception to this statement and said that we were a democracy and that his country was a dictatorship. We continued in this vein for a while till we both grew tired of arguing. The highway was punctuated by bridges every few miles. The bridges were generally about 50 yards long and traversed deep ravines. Almost all of them had been blown up by guerillas and had been rebuilt by temporary spans that allowed only one car to pass at a time. The only bridges that had not been blown were the ones with homemade signs that claimed the bridges in the name of the guerillas. Presumably if the authorities took down the signs the rebels came back at night and blew them up. Nightfall was coming soon and we wound up following an army truck as it dropped off two soldiers at each end of the bridges to guard them during the long night. Once again we drove all night and as we neared the capitol, Guatemala City, the sun was still several hours from coming up. Romulio said, “The road here near the capitol is very bad”. ‘I know, the bumps will tear a car suspension up after a while”, I replied. “No, you don’t understand, the road is very bad, the guerillas are very bad here”. I hadn’t seen anything but blown up bridges until now so I took it with a grain of salt. We came to one more blown up bridge no more than five minutes later. The novelty of crossing blown up bridges had changed into a routine. There was one car in line in front of us and two waiting on the far side. Our turn came after the car on the far side crossed in front of us. It was traveling at a high rate of speed which was unusual because the temporary bridge was treacherous and best traversed at about 10-20 MPH. We crossed carefully with the oversized load and then I noticed the Toyota pickup truck waiting on the far side. There were two men in the cab, one man had on a ski mask and the driver did not. Standing up in the bed of the truck were four men, all of them wearing ski masks, and two of them were carrying AK-47 assault rifles with the distinctive banana clips. They made eye contact and it dawned on me that these casual fellows were not waiting to cross the bridge, but instead were waiting for the next car to cross. They gave us the once over and then did a double take. They seemed surprised to see a local traveling with an Anglo. One man in the cab was smiling, probably at the look on our faces, while the heavily armed men in the bed of the truck were not. We crept off the end of the bridge and hesitated to see what they would do, then Romulio had the presence of mind to gun the motor and we sped away. We both had a feeling of euphoria and relief. “Do the guerillas shoot the people”, I asked. “No, they might stop us and ask us to make a gift of the truck it is only the army that kills the people’. I digested this information is silence. We passed through Guatemala City in the dark and it seemed that there were a lot of people in evidence. The intersections became crowded and Romulio began to curse the other drivers in frustration. “These are your people Romulio”, I teased. “My people are shit”. He had had a long trip as well or perhaps his personality change was complete now that he was at home. We stopped in the city center before dawn as the cars and buses surged around us. I ate some food out of the roach wagon and the part I didn’t finish the owner put back in the display. We drove to the outskirts of the city and a woman was standing near the road as cars passed to and fro. She had six children with her who seemed fairly well cared for. The woman seemed very alone and wanted a motorist to stop and pass some time with her. “Ha”, Romulio laughed and pointed at her in amusement. “It looks like her friends have given her children and left her”. He seemed to enjoy her predicament immensely, but I could only wonder how she was going to feed herself and her six children. At long last the truck pulled up to the neighborhood that was Romulio’s. He told me to sleep in the truck and went inside. It was a cinder block structure with iron doors and bars on the windows. I sat in the truck as the first faint light of dawn seemed to begin on the horizon. Just as I was about to doze off the sound of firecrackers filled the air. It seemed that this was the ritual of morning and that like some far away eastern kingdom of old the evil spirits of the night must be driven away by the sound of firecrackers. It seemed to continue for some time and then people began to pass me on their way to work or school, stiff and cold, their hair still wet from a morning bath. It was very cool at night in the mountainous country, but I had sweated through my sleeping bag, getting very little rest. I felt waves of nausea come over me and got out of the car, walked across the dirt road to a vacant lot and threw up a couple of times. Nausea, night sweats, and now this, wonderful. I thought no one had seen me, but when Romulio’s 20 year old daughter emerged from her house on the way to catch a bus to school she greeted me with, “How are you feeling”, stated in a manner totally devoid of interest. Romulio rose late, motioned for me to enter the house, gave me a towel and soap, and showed me to the “shower”. Even though he was the head man in this neighborhood his shower consisted of a large plastic garbage can filled with cold water. The water only came on for several hours a day and so when it did you did the laundry and filled up containers for later use. We got back in the truck and dropped off the microwave at his mother’s house and the bicycles and children’s clothes to family members. I stayed in the car during the whole exercise, feeling awful. He had obviously warmed up to me because when I asked about a hotel he said I should stay with him. He introduced me to his pretty wife and daughter and that night we went out to dine with friends of the family in town. They were very nice people who accepted the stranger in their midst without reservation. I was both ill and tired from the journey so after trying to speak Spanish for the fourth straight day I passed out on their sofa. The ugly American, no doubt snoring with my mouth open.
I slept on Romulio’s sofa that night and woke up constantly to try and dry off. The night sweats were so bad that I soaked my sleeping bag and towels through several times. I had never experienced anything quite like it. The next day we drove into town to drop off the Toyota truck for repairs. I explored on my own for a while and when Romulio drove up later he had a woman in the front seat. He dropped her off and asked me not to tell his wife. I told him that the only way to live life was to be free and be happy. We stopped at a very small store owned by a friend, and his regular group of buddies were there. We drank a few beers and they were generous about sharing with me the facts of life in this terra incognita and what their lives were like. They were curious about me in friendly way. They were all characters in the mold of Falstaff only thinner. A guitar came out and several of the men sang and they all enjoyed each other’s company. Romulio took me to his favorite whore house, a restaurant that served more than food and drink. The interior was so dark that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face or count the money in my wallet. Three girls came out and joined us for a drink, Romulio kind of held back and watched my reactions like he was measuring me. His favorite professional sat in his lap and he seemed very much at home here. The other two women sat in chairs near mine. One was older, about 30-35 and she was the obvious boss of the other two gal’s. The last girl was about 20, with a pretty face and a good body. I had made up my mind in the first minute. The boss lady decided it was time to fix a price and I indicated my preference for the younger girl, who it turned out, had come from El Salvador. The boss lady insisted that it was she and I or nothing. I tried not to make a big deal about it and kept the conversation light while I glanced at Romulio and nodded to the pretty girl from El Salvador. He made a gesture to indicate that it was out of his hands. The boss lady came and sat in my lap to force the issue. I ran my hand across the small of her back and rubbed my way up her back to let her know I thought that she was worth it, it was just I had “fallen for” the other girl because I had seen her first. You know how we men are…perhaps both could pass the time with me? She seemed to be doing mental calculations. Why in the hell was she getting in the way I wondered, wasn’t she in business. My left hand had finally made it all the way up to the back of her neck when I felt the scar of a knife wound right where some would be bullfighter had sunk his switchblade in the throes of passion in order to kill her and heighten the experience. Holy shit I thought. She flinched when I ran my index finger over the scar and shied from me and brushed my hand off the scar, but did not leave my lap. I was finally used to the cavernous darkness and decided to reappraise her. I noticed two bruises on her, one on her cheek was the size of a silver dollar, the other smaller one was on her temple. I glanced again quickly, so as not to draw her attention. The bruises were actually blue or purple sores and had fuzz growing on them. These were my first look at Kaposi Sarcoma, the tell tale signs of full blown aids. To my credit I did not react at all and kept her on my lap, but I pressed my case for the El Salvadoran girl which she rejected again. It was her or nothing. I realized that she didn’t want me to have the pretty young woman because I was from the US, the land of HIV. This was March, 1994, and the US was the first nation to really publicize HIV and had been doing so for about 7 years or more. Naturally the world associated HIV with the US, at least in the beginning. The ugly American bringing plague and death…and dollars. She was trying to protect the Salvadoran girl as best she could from the terrible fate that had befallen her. I tried one more time for affect and then signaled to Romulio that it was time to leave. I didn’t mention my suspicions to him, and even barely to myself. Guatemala City was bustling and I bought some small gifts for his wife and daughter and I extended an invitation to his pretty daughter to come visit me in the United States. Romulio still thought I was a jerk, but now I was probably less of one. I looked at my map and even though I was sick I thought it was time for me to explore the country, or at least try. I was very sick by now from both ends and I could only stand up for a couple of hours at a time. The people around me were either non-committal about my illness or they seemed to enjoy it. Obviously this was very common with visitors but it was all new to me. I had always been able to cauterize my GI tract with generous quantities of tequila before. That night the family watched TV while I wrote in my journal. The family dog, deceased, sat stuffed off to the side of the TV, poised to spring into action. They had obviously been very fond of him. When I asked about the best old city to go to Romulio told me he was driving past Antigua in morning and he would take me there. In the morning the mountain road was very dangerous and crosses marking fatal accidents were everywhere. Graffiti was the only form of political expression that was free and relatively safe if you were careful. It was clear that a lot of people were not too happy with the government to say the least. Antigua was the ancient Capitol nestled in between several volcanoes that dominated the horizon with a God like presence. There were churches from the 18th and 19th Century in great numbers but they were nearly all shells. Earthquakes had brought down the roofs and often much of the walls and they stood in mute testimony to the futility of human aspirations for permanence. Everything here had been destroyed over and over again so that now all but 2 or 3 of the churches were derelict hulks. It was terrifying and awe inspiring at the same time that these people had continued to build in the face of annihilation until finally moving the Capitol city away from the volcano. The city square was very beautiful, filled with trees and flowers, and the plaque read in Spanish that the garden in the square had been a gift from the people of United States to the people of Guatemala in 1934 under the good neighbor program of FDR. As a general rule when I travel I try to avoid watching TV and local media and simply talk to the people I meet to find out what goes on. In the few days I had been in country it had been impossible to miss the big story in the country that was blaring out on TV, radio, and the papers. It was reported continually that Americans were kidnapping Guatemalan children and taking them out of the country to be used as unwilling organ donors for rich elderly Americans back in the United States. No one had said anything to me, or even given me a dirty look while I was in the company of Romulio and other locals, but now I was traveling alone. A birthday party was in full swing in the park with small children and parents throwing a ball and a Frisbee back and forth. I was sitting on a park bench writing in my journal when the Frisbee rolled off and came to rest near my feet. The little boy celebrating his birthday came over to retrieve it and in courtesy I picked it up and handed it to him. I had forgotten about the big story about monsters from the north, but when the little boy froze in fear it all came back to me. He very gingerly reached out and took Frisbee as one would attempt to kiss a cobra on the head, then he ran as fast as he could back to the safety of his family and friends. Everything had gotten very quiet as everyone in the park had watched the drama, and now they resumed talking and moving around. I suddenly felt as if I were a leper at the coronation, asking to kiss the bride. No one said anything to me and the atmosphere was not one of hostility, just caution. The ugly American had not tried to feast on human flesh. In the three weeks I was wandering around Guatemala there were some very strange occurrences. An angry mob attacked an American teacher who was there to help with a grass roots organization. They had heard a rumor, spread by the local military commander, that she was a witch who was stealing children, or some such nonsense. She suffered a fractured skull, lapsed into a coma, and never regained consciousness. An American expatriate who owned a hotel was taken in for questioning by the military, tortured, interrogated and murdered. At no time did US diplomats issue any statement or protest about these and other murders. It was clear to me that the people who were supposed to safeguard US citizens were missing in action. The child of an American diplomat was kidnapped by the secret police from school and then later released. The phone system never worked by design in order to thwart rebel communications. The municipal workers who had not been paid in nearly a year instigated a strike, marched on the city hall and set up barricades in the street that they then set on fire. The hospital workers went out on strike so if you were sick or injured you were on your own. The airport workers called a strike and shut down the airport just as I was planning to leave. I found out later they were paid $160 a month and were demanding a raise. The newspaper headline was a photograph of an Anglo visitor trying to force his way through the airport entrance blocked by several Indian women workers. The photograph summed up the mood of the country in that the man resembled no one so much as Arnold Schwarzenegger and the women were less than 5 feet tall, yet he could not manage to break through the picket line. The Lilliputians had had enough and weren’t going to take it anymore. There was a run on the banks and the local people in a state of hysterical panic lined up around the block to rescue their life savings, while the young American tourists, oblivious to it all, played hacky sack in the park a few feet away. There was a barely controlled state of civil war as government soldiers and police, sporting four different kinds of uniforms, stood on nearly every street corner. They were armed with every kind of surplus rifle out of the American military arsenal, M-1 rifles, M-16’s, AR-15’s, the occasional AK-47, and .45 pistols galore. Most of these men were elementary school drop outs that could only be sure of surviving if they found someone to arrest and extort money from. The level of violence was such that when you entered a bank or electronics store there were guards with their backs to every wall in the place, the ubiquitous assault rifle poised to raise, aim, and fire in one swift motion. The sight of a man lying in the street with blood pouring from his head did not elicit any response from passersby. The land of eternal spring was the land of eternal chaos. The government and the rebels skirmished in the hills just outside the Capitol, meaning, everywhere. The police station on the edge of this beautiful park saw a procession of heavily armed men strutting and leering like they thought of themselves as extras in a Sylvester Stallone movie. Directly opposite this scene was a procession of a different kind. The faithful carried statues of the Madonna over a carpet of flower petals to the massive cathedral that dominated the square only slightly less than the volcano in the distance. It seemed to be the only sign of the milk of human kindness, save the beautiful cemetery a few blocks away. Whether one found oneself in the cool quiet of the peaceful cathedral listening to the litany of prayer, or in the basement of the police station a few feet away with electrodes from a battery charger hooked up to your genitals…all roads led to the same place. The immaculate and timeless cemetery that held the rich and famous and the poor and forgotten equally. The US military was as low profile as the diplomatic corps, but their hardware was more difficult to conceal. From the rifles to the rows of helicopters and military transport planes at the airports and bases, the US influence was everywhere. The only aspect of that presence not explicitly about making war was the park I was sitting in, watching it all go down. The park dated from the 1930’s and the Good Neighbor Policy was the last sign of neighborliness from the US government. The people did not like the government which was propped up by the military. It was a kleptocracy in the extreme. In general the fabulously wealthy, the church hierarchy, and the military officer corps kept the people in their place by fighting a constant war. It was a war fought in the open with US rifles and bullets and helicopters, but it was also a hidden war of the mind. The stories that blanketed the airwaves about US citizens kidnapping Guatemalan children were part of a psychological warfare operation designed to drive a wedge of fear and mistrust between the non-governmental operations like Habitat for Humanity and others that featured private US citizens attempting to aid the general population made up of the poor working class and indigenous citizens of Guatemala. It seemed to be working fairly well. American citizens who came here to help people in the spirit of the “Good Neighbor Policy’ were liable to be killed by the military or by angry mobs who objected to them feasting on the flesh of small children. The silence from the US diplomatic corps was deafening. They either didn’t care or were part of the operation. One thing was very clear to me, and that was that even a former Guatemalan Defense Intelligence agent like Romulio couldn’t smuggle so much as a microwave oven in or out of this country, much less an Anglo like me. If children were being smuggled out of the country to a fate worse than death it was with the tacit agreement and assistance of the Guatemalan government. Most of the Americans I talked to seemed oblivious to it all. They didn’t speak the language and lived in an insular world of private compounds and hamburger and pizza. After several weeks of illness and the atmosphere of barely controlled chaos I was looking forward to going home. I still had night sweats every night that soaked through everything at hand. I grew so desperate that I bought some antibiotics from one of the pharmacies that were on every other corner. It was made in France and nearly illegible to me, but it was all they had and I felt myself getting worse with every passing day. The medicine seemed to begin to work after a few days and so after 6 days I discontinued taking it, literally crawled to the airport, got on a plane, and headed back to my newly appreciated boring life. The plane ticket one way cost more than a round trip ticket would, so I bought the round trip ticket. It was no surprise to me that a major airline could charge an exorbitant price to leave the land of eternal chaos. When the wheels of the plane left the tarmac and folded up under the belly of the plane I felt like I had really accomplished something by making it out alive. The neighborhood wanted to hear all about my adventures in Guatemala. To heighten the effect two gallon bottles of Venado, the sugar cane rum from Guatemala emerged from my luggage and we passed them around as I regaled the home sick with tales from under the volcano. We laughed and they went down memory lane aided by the sweet nectar from home and my stories of road blocks, municipal unrest, and beautiful women. My friend whose idea it had been in the first place but had decided not to go with me was no longer terribly emotionally distraught over his female trouble, merely bitter. He seemed to regret not going with me and asked me about Romulio. “How did he treat you, did he take you to a hotel”. “Yeah, he was okay after a while, but on the way down there he was a dick”, I replied. “He told me he was a former spy, he is full of crap”. My friend looked at me and said, “He is a killer”. “He was shot with a shotgun in the arm and in the leg, that story about a motorcycle accident is a lie”. It took a moment for what he said to sink in, and I blinked at him for a minute. “You forgot to mention that part”. “He is a hit man, he will kill someone for a friend and then they will kill someone for him so there is no direct connection, but everyone knows”. My eyes grew wide with disbelief. “Why didn’t you tell me he was a hit man before I got in the car with him?” “He started talking shit about my mother so I was saying the same crap back to him, he didn’t like me too much for a while there…thanks a lot”. My friend looked at me and shrugged. It had turned out okay so why worry. I picked up the bottle of Venado with both hands and poured several slugs down my throat. The cane liquor burned and then turned warm and mellow. I looked back at my absent minded friend and shrugged as well. That was just how things went in the land of eternal spring.
School resumed in few days and the kids were glad to see me and I them. It is funny how different kinds of stress affect a person. Having people call you names and shun you is one kind of stress while having people point automatic weapons at you is another. It acted like an inoculation and it seemed to continue to work well. I couldn’t have cared less what insults they hurled at my head several times a day, or if the administration thought I was a bad apple. They could all kiss my ass. After I returned to work I noticed that my energy level was very low and that I could barely make it through the day. I had diarrhea and a low grade fever that I just could not shake and I collapsed at the end of every work day. I went to the doctor (my HMO) and she gave me antibiotics, good old penicillin that I took for a while to moderate or no affect. The year came to an end in a few months and all my plans for travel and adventure fell through as I lay on the couch and could not get up much of the time. Teaching school left me too busy for much of a social life, and my father had come by to visit me in the combat zone just once in the year I had lived there. I needed someone to take care of me but there was just no one there. In June my throat (thyroid gland) began to swell for several weeks, and then the swelling went down, and then began to swell up to a ridiculous size. This process repeated itself 3-4 times until a hard cyst like mass formed and didn’t go away. I tried going to the doctor but they were less than helpful. I went to an alternative medicine doctor but when she went out of town and my symptoms turned worse I discontinued her treatment. I was thrashing around and out of options. The school year started again and I struggled with my thyroid tumor and my failing energy levels. By Christmas I was appealing to my HMO to do something, but they were content just to examine me over and over again. The school district didn’t want to pay for my treatment and began to do the set up paper work to fire me. I had my attorney write some letters to the HMO to demand they remove my thyroid tumor. The surgery was done in January and the surgeon did a very professional job, taking out one side of my thyroid. He described a lesion on the right side thyroid but was smart enough to leave it in. The tumor was about 4.5 cm in diameter and very hard and fibrous. The pathology report said it was pre-cancerous. I had asked the doctor what the experience of surgery would be like and he said simple don’t worry about anything. I really like the surgeon, but he forgot to mention that I would wake up with tubes coming out of my throat. The muscles that held my head up were cut during the surgery and now they were held together with giant metal hoop staples. A friend of mine who saw me later said I looked like the guy from Hell Raiser. Waking up in this shape was something of a surprise. There was a very nasty laceration apparently from where a nurse in a state of panic had tried to shave my chest. It looked like someone had carved a 2”x4” piece of meat out of my chest that took 12 weeks to heal. How you do that to someone with a disposable razor blade while trying to shave them, even in a panic is beyond me. I felt a little better for about two weeks and then my health seemed to slowly fade out on me until it was worse than before. The fatigue was so profound that when I tried to walk across the living room I had to stop and rest before I went back. I went back to the HMO but they happily told me I was cured. I returned to the doctor at least 40 times to try to get help with this terrible illness that had me flat on my back and stranded on the couch all the time. I was really scared but they were content just to take notes. My appetite grew very poor and the nausea was so profound that I only ate once a day. I noticed by accident that the symptoms were less when I didn’t eat and after I ate I felt worse. I couldn’t eat for two days so I just decided to go with the fast as an experiment to see if the symptoms improved. I lived on water for 8 days and my body was wracked with a slight fever at first and the awful experience of an extended fast, but the nausea and the fever relented and faded away. Somehow my body was reacting to my food intake, and if I didn’t eat the nausea faded. I don’t recommend not eating for a week, it is terribly painful, but strangely enough I felt better. About 4 weeks later when I was overcome with pain and nausea I tried fasting again for 13 days. It was as long as I could hold out without food. I just became too weak to move around when I was fasting, but I knew that my illness was linked somehow to my food intake. My job refused to return my calls and letters they just ignored me and hoped I would go away. I had paid a lot of money to be in that HMO but it did me absolutely no good. For six months I tried to get my job back and to get the HMO to help me, and then I just gave up on them both. It was clear they had orders to ignore me. On days when I wasn’t too ill to walk I found old cars that weren’t running, bought them from the owners, and got them running again and sold them. I made about $600-800 dollars a month which was not really enough to stay alive for very long. To keep body and soul together I quickly burned through all of my savings. I was trying to figure out what to do when destiny took a hand. I was driving in the combat zone neighborhood where I lived when I was pulled over for rolling through a stop sign. I hadn’t run the stop sign they were just getting their quota. Normally I would have paid the ticket but I was tired of taking crap and couldn’t put up with any more. I refused to sign the ticket, the cop called for backup, and when I refused to cooperate one of the cops threw me to the ground and jumped up and down on me, grabbed my hair and slammed my head into the pavement, while I was hand cuffed. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. They pushed me up against the patrol car and I said something like, “I wasn’t resisting”, at which point the same cop dented the hood of the patrol car with my head. I filed a complaint about it with internal affairs. There was a very public case in the paper of a Hispanic man who had a similar experience a few miles down the road at the same time. He died without ever regaining consciousness. I called the ACLU, attorneys, LULAC, but none of them would help me. The guy from LULAC talked to me for a few minutes and said, “What are you, a white boy or something”. It was clear I wasn’t the favorite color of the week and I was on my own. I lived on a street without clearly defined numbers to the houses which made it hard to figure out who lived where. I saw the same two cops driving up and down the street looking for my house for a couple of days in a row. I wasn’t sure what they had in mind but I knew I probably wasn’t going to like it. My illness seemed to be a roller coaster with highs and lows that left me at the bottom stuck on the couch for a couple of weeks, and then the symptoms would lessen for a few days and allow activity. I waited for this maddening sine wave to relent and then I loaded my motorcycle into my 79 VW hippy van, rented a U-Haul truck, threw everything I had in it, loaded up the cocker spaniel and the orange tabby cat, and headed to the hill country above Austin, towing the van behind the U-haul. I had traded the 72 Ford Mustang I was repairing to a friend in return for 6 months rent on his 10 acre deer lease that he said had a house on it, but in reality it was an old shack. It was July, 1995 and I had landed like a human ship wreck in the middle of nowhere. Most people would probably have been devastated by the turn of events but I was just glad that if I was going to buy the farm it wouldn’t be in the cold impersonal city of Houston, Texas. The land was in the middle of a drought and the mesquite trees, cedar trees, and prickly pear cactus were all framed in dry brown grasses. The house I moved into was one hundred years old if it was a day and full of trash. My enterprising friend had moved it out of Austin and towed it 40 miles to the north onto his ten acres of heaven. I had been born in Austin 33 years previously so I felt like I was coming home…to die. I wasn’t morose, it was just that the symptoms were relapsing and remitting and progressive. All of which means that the nausea, profound fatigue, night sweats, inability to sleep, muscle weakness, terrible kidney pain, passing blood, vertigo, and tinnitus all came and went and got worse as time went on. The most profound symptom of all was unbearable neck pain about C4 that left my neck frozen much of the time. All of the muscles that were innervated off my spine seemed to slowly contract until the pain was unbearable and it was hard to breathe or move around. It was like living in a straight jacket or iron maiden of my own muscles. Even at rest my breathing would be labored like I was climbing a long flight of stairs. The book Osler’s Web about the life and work of a 19th Century physician had the closest description I could find of my disease. A patient who had traveled abroad had a persistent disease state with primary symptoms of persistent diarrhea and no calf muscles. Many of the old people I talked to that had traveled told me it was very common for people to get sick overseas and not recover. Historically when armies formed for war large numbers of men were crowded together and exposed to microbes that their bodies had never encountered. WWII was the first war that claimed more deaths from combat than from illness in history. Recalling the Greek hero Achilles who was felled by a golden arrow I wondered if the story was a poetic version of the disease written about in Osler’s Web. My calf muscles would waste away and then partially return. Was this the same as Achilles heel that was in fact some kind of version of Polio? I kept trying to read the literature and discover the cause of my disease. I cleaned the house out as best I could, moved my bed and belongings in and wondered what life was going to be like. The fire ants that came by ship from Brazil more than two generations ago had made their way into the hill country of central Texas, and unlike the Killer Bees, these fire ants really were killing everything in their path. I observed new born rabbits that could not flee being eaten alive, the deer fawns being killed by masses of poisonous bites, even bird’s nests that were low in the trees were subject to attack. I was even forced to place bowls of water under the legs of my bed because the ants had begun to attack me in my bed. Some days after working on a garden or other physical labor I had vertigo and muscle weakness so profound I couldn’t walk. My friend who owned the property was a savant of sorts who told me that MD’s would kill you and that I should try taking DHEA. I had lost faith in doctors and decided I wouldn’t go to one unless I was sure I was going to die. The DHEA was a precursor hormone that gave me more energy and allowed me to be active more hours of the day, but it was no miracle drug. I learned to drink about 36 ounces a day of cranberry juice during periods of passing blood or intense kidney pain. I treated the muscle symptoms by smoking marijuana which made the connective tissues loosen up and let go with an audible pop sound that could be heard across the room. Marijuana was prominently listed on the two oldest medical texts in history and when I smoked it the relief was considerable. I had smoked it in high school and it had been a way of not dealing with my emotional problems like my parent’s divorce. It is a depressant and when smoked every day leads to depression. In high school it had actually made me more depressed, not less so. It held me back until I managed to quit smoking it after a few years and went to college instead. Marijuana has a tendency to lower your immune function as well as depress your central nervous system. It is also illegal. My physical pain was so intense that I weighed my options as an adult and decided to continue to use what worked. Since I could not afford to buy it I grew the plants outdoors in 5 gallon buckets that I could move around my ten acres should the need arise. I was happy here, no one bothered me. On one side of the property was a cattle ranch, on the others a horse ranch and a goat ranch. The front of the property was on the road, but trees screened the house from view. At the back fence of the heavily wooded ten acres was a limestone quarry that was being worked only occasionally. Just inside the back fence line of the property was a small creek that held water but only ran free after the rains came. The rolling hills were home to lots of wild life, I even saw the red fox and black footed ferret. The Indian name for the area was Land of Good Waters because of the many rivers and streams, some of it spring fed. It looked like a great place to raise kids to be Tom Sawyer, there were limestone caverns everywhere and arrow heads could be found in the stream after rain. People had lived here for thousands of years. I captured the rain off the tin roof of my old house in two large vessels and put it on my garden to grow a lot of my own food. My friend told me it would be so quiet out in the country I might have trouble getting used to it at first and getting to sleep. He was right, but after 20 years in the big city, life in the country was a gift. I had lots of time to myself and I had enough peace and quiet where I could think. I began to write poetry and short stories as a kind of talking cure since I was too poor to afford a psychiatrist after all my disillusion at being a throw away human being. I still had my privacy, my dog and cat, my family by phone, and my dignity. The old house had electricity that I used to run a reading light and a porch light and nothing more, but it had no indoor plumbing. At first answering the call of nature outdoors was embarrassing but later I found it demeaning to go into a common, dirty restroom. The fire ants made the human waste disappear and the only fallout was that the deer no longer walked up to the front porch. After 6 weeks the drought broke and the rains came and I stripped off my clothes and ran naked in the down pour. Try that in Houston. I poached deer, ate out of my garden, and went to the local truck stop with a big zip lock bag to hide food from the buffet. I got lunch and dinner all for one low price. The dog and the cat loved living there. The dog got to chase deer when I was up to it and the cat was able to eat all the deer mice and brown rats he wanted. The cat had a hard time at first navigating the prickly pear cactus. The mice would dart to safety and he would get a face full of thorns. In a few weeks he no longer came to me to remove the thorns and the mice near the house slowly disappeared completely. The brown rats in the attic and nearby barn learned it was time to find a new home. The physical affect of my cat eating deer mice was like watching an athlete take steroids. He buffed out like a big cat and even grew a mane around his neck. The neighbor mistook him for a bobcat. “No, that’s just my cat”. The neighbors weren’t sure what to make of me, but when I gave away fresh vegetables to them they figured that I was harmless. The van quit running and I couldn’t fix it. I was forced to buy a VW bug that wasn’t running. I got it to run but couldn’t fix the wiring so the lights didn’t work. I just stayed on the motorcycle or when I used the bug I stuck to the back roads and didn’t drive at night. Georgetown, population 20,000, was 12 miles to the south, home to the oldest university in the state. There was a giant retirement community going in nearby and lots of development was taking place. It was time for another real estate boom, most of the locals loved it, but some of the old timers lamented the loss of the pristine landscape and wildlife. In the 20 months that I lived there some of the most beautiful river front property in the state was “developed” by building Wal-Mart stores and chain stores right up to the edge of it. The immense parking lots were asphalt black top that created a steady pulse of oil based run off into the aquifer recharge zone. There were rumors that the developers had found Indian burials along the scenic river and had quietly paved them over to avoid delays in construction. I felt like they had no concept of what that beautiful river was worth. Another super highway was built right through the richest farm land in the state and over the most scenic part of the river to allow more cars to reach Dallas. In truth it was about big construction contracts and making big money. It seemed that they had destroyed the past, the present, and the future in their ignorance and greed. Still, it would take them 10-20 years to destroy most of the beautiful places and the cycle of boom and bust would probably stop them before they were finished…this time. The county had some of the richest farm land in the state. It had made the first settlers who came there in the 1840’s very wealthy. There was a fault line right through the middle of Williamson County running north to south all the way to Dallas. The Balcones Fault line was full of limestone caverns. Interstate highway 35 had been built on the ridge it formed. On the east side of the line the soil was rich, brown to black, and deep. On the west side of the fault the paltry soil was about 2-4 inches deep at which point you get to limestone rock. I of course was on the west side. Before the mesquite and cedar trees had moved in vast herds of buffalo had migrated over the landscape keeping the trees out and the landscape more open. The springs and creeks had run full of water then, but with the disappearance of the buffalo and the invasion of mesquite and cedar the landscape changed and the springs dried up. My first winter was quite an experience. I had an old wood burning stove and had to collect my own fire wood. In January an enormous ice storm hit the hill country that coated all the trees and everything else with several inches of ice. The cold snap dropped the temperature into the low 20’s (Fahrenheit) where it stayed for over a week. I had to keep the fire going in the stove or freeze. The dog snuggled up on one side of me and the cat on the other to stay warm. I finally understood the meaning of the term, “three dog night”. An entire stove full of wood only lasted 3-4 hours, so for an entire week I had to wake up every 4 hours and put more wood on the fire or freeze. Finally the sun came out and the temperature rose above freezing and the unbelievably thick coat of ice hanging on the trees started to drip. I stood outside in the early morning sun with a sense of relief and wonderment at the radical transformation of the landscape I was standing in. The oak trees were heavily weighted down and as the ice gradually began to turn to water in the sunlight the trees began to vibrate. Very slowly at first and then with increasing energy the process of melting began to set the hundreds of oak trees around me to shaking and brushing the ice covered branches against each other. The only sound to compare it to is the sound of a chandelier being roughly shaken, but in the small valley I stood in there were thousands of small oak trees acting like a thousand chandeliers being musically shaken at the same time. There is a curious aspect to the land I was in that I had never experienced before and could not readily explain. Sound seemed to travel great distances in the little valley I was in and the rural quiet did not completely explain it. When I first arrived there in the little valley I had stood on the porch at night in amazement and listened to two ranchers having a conversation one hundred meters away as if they were standing right next to me. The limestone rock that formed the ground and perhaps even the limestone caverns had something to do with the ability of sound to travel incredible distances. So there I stood in the sun after the big freeze, listening to 100 acres of trees shaking and vibrating to a single note. The sound seemed to rise up to heaven and send me into a euphoria and intoxication of sound and visual spectacle. The reflection of the sun on the dozens of trees in my field of vision was refracted and hundreds of prisms were vibrated by the ever increasing violence of the movement of ten thousand branches. Ever so gently the first piece of ice fell off the smallest branch and hit the ground followed by several more and then the gradual trickle of ice falling from the smallest branches became a cascade of larger and larger pieces. Now that which had sounded like the tinkling of one hundred thousand bells became the shattering of a thousand pieces of glass. As the ever larger pieces of ice fell off the tree branches the violence of the movement transferred to the branches sent more ice tumbling to the ground. The sound of shattering glass became almost deafening as thousands of trees dropped immense pieces of ice to the ground in a crescendo that lasted only about 10 minutes. I stood in shock in the new silence. Most of the trees on the property were small oak or cedar but in the very back on the creek grew some giant specimens of oak and cotton wood that rose 80 feet into the air and had stood for several hundred years. The two biggest trees had buckled and split right down the middle under the weight of many hundreds of pounds of ice. They lay like the bodies of ancient old men who had fallen without making a sound. In the town square the big oak trees that were 350 years old had split right down the middle as well. There was a general mourning for the passing of the largest and oldest trees in the county in the ice catastrophe. The sound and spectacle I had witnessed came only once in a hundred years or even once in 500 years. It was a gift of an experience but there obviously was a price paid. I couldn’t hear the giant old trees dying at the back of the property over the din of ten thousand chandeliers and shattering glass. After living in the country for 6 months I stopped locking the doors and windows and eventually grew to leave all the doors wide open and the keys in the ignition of the car. I could sleep with a clear conscience, besides, my dog slept in the doorway, guarding me. A local gal told me that there were wolves that still roamed the landscape. “They wait until you leave, then if they can they break into your house and tear everything up”. I wasn’t sure if I believed her. One day I was doing what I and the dog like to do when we had spare time, stalking deer in the woods and then giving chase for fun. I was getting so good at it that I could just about have taken some down with an atlatl or other throwing weapon. I had kind of reverted to my natural state. My routine was to wake early with the sun and roll a marijuana cigarette and go for a very long walk with the dog. Marijuana was a drug that I was very familiar with and the effects were something I could control. I generally would lapse into a kind of reverie that allowed my mind to wander freely and abstractly. It stimulated my creativity to write and with much practice I was able to settle into a kind of trance that was like being awake and asleep at the same time. I drifted into the subconscious and conscious mind similar to the sensation of being in two places at once. At times I would be in my reverie and looking out for deer at the same time and I imagined that I knew when they were nearby. I would sense that the deer were just off to the right in that stand of trees and very often they were. Whether this was my imagination and coincidence or whether I had heightened abilities I cannot say. I do know that by my late twenties when the phone rang I would often know if it was a friend and answer the phone by saying hello to them and start speaking. My friend would ask me if I had caller ID and I would lie and say yes. I always knew when the phone rang and it was someone I didn’t want to speak to. This ability was stronger with friends and family than with strangers. I just considered myself to be very intuitive. I had been introduced to the work of Joseph Campbell years before and his books had a profound effect on me and I continued to read them to try to incorporate his very difficult ideas and concepts into my daily life. One day near the cabin I spotted a pod of about 10-12 deer and the dog began to give chase. They pulled away from him effortlessly as his short legs tried to follow. There was a long legged fawn which had lost his spots but was still gangly and awkward on long slender legs. The fawn started to enter the trees at the edge of the clearing but the leader of the pod circled and tried to draw him away from the tree line. The fawn did 3 short circles and then followed the adult away from the trees. Just as all the deer disappeared over the edge of the clearing I noticed something come out of the trees. It was a large tan to reddish wolf that stood quite tall at the shoulder and was looking intently at my dog. The cocker spaniel (named Boo) finally saw the wolf and started wagging his tail as he continued to track the deer pod. The wolf came out and cut off his pursuit. He started to charge my dog then stopped, then started again. I started to run and look for a rock at the same time. In a land made up of nothing but rock, just when I needed one there were only cow patties around. I finally picked a rock much too small for the 100+ pound wolf and started yelling at him. He was looking at the spaniel trying to figure out what he was dealing with when he noticed me. Our eyes locked, his eyes were yellow and not the least bit afraid of me. He stuck around briefly then melted back into the trees. He had almost had that fawn. I realized why my dog slept in the doorway. “I guess she was telling me the truth after all”. I woke one morning feeling especially bad. My complexion was chalk white and after couple of hours I suddenly passed out and woke up even more ashen faced. It scared me so I drove to the emergency room and told the doctor about my illness and what happened that morning. He ran a blood test then asked me how I was going to pay. “I don’t have insurance anymore, I’m not working”. He looked at me with pure disgust that turned to undisguised anger. I was given the business card to a local doctor and escorted out of the emergency room by a security guard. I was humiliated and angry with myself that I had trusted them again. I swore I would die first before returning. I had been sitting out in the woods for about 8 months when spring finally rolled around. In my boredom and isolation I had written a couple of children’s books and some poetry and I needed to find an illustrator to finish the work. I had drawn illustrations for it but it needed someone who was a real artist. I rode my motorcycle into town and met the owner of a local bookstore and asked her if she knew of an illustrator for my children’s book. She was very kind and offered to show my book around. I checked back with her in a few days and she introduced me to a girl who was very gifted. She went to work on it and her family and I became good friends. Her dad seemed to see something in my work and insisted on inviting me to their house and feeding me at every opportunity. I tried to be a good friend to them. I met a few other people in that small town who were inventors, writers, sculptors and painters. They came to form my circle of friends. I continued to write poetry and began to research a novel set in the Vietnam War. I began to read everything on the war I could find. My body that I had depended on my whole life to do whatever I asked of it had failed me. Now I was forced into living the life of the mind, so I threw myself into it completely and read as many great works of literature as I could. The circle of friends I made were painting, inventing, and writing books, and their company seemed to stimulate me to greater effort. I showed my poetry to an elder statesman of the artist community. He did nothing but write a few letters, drink coffee, and paint one painting nearly every day. He would tell me when the poetry was bad, when I had a few good lines, and when I was on the right track. I knew I had hit my stride when the subject matter of my poetry began to emerge occasionally in his paintings. He would invite me and the gang over and feed us and we would all go out to art exhibits and the like. I had reinvented myself and after I took the trouble to come out of the woods I had found some good friends. I still generally could only be physically active for 3-4 hours without passing out for a few hours. On bad days I still couldn’t get out of bed. I tried to substitute teach at the local high school but after a few weeks of trying, it was clear I was still too much of a physical wreck. I had to avoided alcohol and caffeine like they were poison. I sold my vegetables and the occasional used car that I fixed to pay for a little food and gas and the electric bill. Living in a shack in the woods can be pretty inexpensive. One evening as the sun hung just above the tree line I was walking in a small clearing among the oaks near the house when I noticed a giant pod of Monarch butterflies. There were literally thousands that were swarming around and I stopped to watch for a few moments. The butterflies seemed to be doing an intricate dance of some kind. They would circle around each other bobbing and weaving as if feeling each other out. There seemed to be some hidden symmetry to the dance that I might figure out if I watched long enough. It was like watching the birds in the sky or the fish in the sea when they all change direction at the same time, as if by some unspoken invisible thought. Except that this was a dance of thousands of individual butterflies that exhibited that same unspoken symmetry. There were individual actions and group actions that seemed to weave a moving tapestry. Every once in a while a pair that were dancing around each other would effortlessly move off the dance floor and roost in the trees together without disturbing the solid mass. Those that remained would circle and dip and dive around a partner only to change to a different partner, but the change was so smooth that no butterfly ever seemed to be dancing alone. Gradually their number was reduced as more pairs moved into the trees for the night. I watched the hypnotic scene for nearly an hour before I left it so as not to disturb them. I had been watching nature all my life and I had begun collecting butterflies with my dad since I was 6 years old, but nothing even remotely like this had ever happened to me. I had the profound feeling that something important had been revealed to me but I could not say exactly what. A year went by and in the February I was staring at a calendar that had a picture of a field of lupine flowers, blue bonnets. My grandmother who lived 500 miles away in the area known as the Panhandle rang me up on the phone and inquired how I was doing and then said she had been in the middle of reading my poem, Blue Bonnets, and she launched into a few lines. We had begun to correspond, writing letters is the lost art, and after a year or more we had grown close though separated by distance. We almost never spoke by phone as she was thrifty and poor and considered long distance charges exorbitant. I would call her every once and a while but she hardly ever called, preferring to write letters. It seemed an odd synchronicity that we were thinking the same thing at the same time and that she had decided to pick up the phone and call me. She begged me to come visit soon and I promised her I would visit soon as a gentle, well meaning lie. Two weeks later she passed away from a stroke after tilling the soil in her garden in preparation for planting. My dad and step mother and I flew up from Houston for the funeral. My grandfather had Parkinson’s disease and he could not take care of himself and so we made arrangements to sell his house and possessions and place him in the retirement home in the little town of 1,000 souls where he had lived the last 50 years. He had lost him wife and now he was losing his home, his freedom, his cat. I went home in a funk and felt like my folks were committing some kind of unintentional crime. Another two weeks passed and I made up my mind.
I loaded up my motorcycle into my latest 1979 VW van (blue) and everything else I could fit inside, saving the dog and cat for last, and headed up to the Panhandle to take care of my 84 year old grandfather. It was March, 1997 and as I looked at the map I realized that I was heading in the same northwesterly track again for the second time in two years, this one was 500 miles distant instead of the previous 200 mile journey. I mused that if the process repeated itself the next unplanned journey would land me 1000 miles away somewhere in Washington state. The old van barely made it, driving straight through at night with a poorly adjusted ignition timing setting. My grandfather stood in the yard to welcome me right as I pulled up. He was a slender 110 pounds, short white hair with a widow’s peak and bright blue eyes that sparkled undimmed by the clouds forming in his eyes. He wore a pork pie hat and a white shirt and tan slacks. He greeted me warmly and watched the livestock tumble out of the van. He was happy to have family for company. I paid the young guy who had stayed with him for 3-4 days and thanked him. The house I remembered visiting only at Thanksgiving or Christmas when I was a child had gotten even smaller. The décor was original 1962 and the house dated from 1947. He built it with money he saved from working in an aircraft plant in San Diego during WWII. W.E. “Bill” Thomas was his name. W.E. stood for William Elonso and he preferred Bill. His grandfather had come to north Texas immediately after the Civil War, the last survivor of 7 brothers who fought on the Confederate side. His father Lonnie and his cousin Zook had left a poor home at the tender age of 12 with a herd of cattle, going into the Oklahoma Territory. Lonnie was adopted by an Indian woman who had lost her son and the two were watched over by the Indians and outlaws who lived in no man’s land. In 1880 at the age of 20 he married a pretty school teacher and moved back to the Indian Territory to raise his family. He spoke the Indian languages or knew the hand signs that were the universal form of communication on the plains. He drank with Chief Quanah Parker, the man who instituted the Peyote Religion. When an infant child died, he and his wife moved into a town in north Texas to be near a doctor. He tried farming but “civilization” the changes the world had gone through did not suit him. He was killed in a farming accident when a mule kicked him in the head. The year was 1927 and Bill Thomas was 16 years old then and he took up the responsibility of caring for his mother and younger brother and sister. His two older brothers were out in the world with their own families to support and he was on his own. The Great Depression and the Dust Bowel Era both descended upon him but somehow he was able to persevere. He bought a tractor and rented out his services before anyone else was using them. He was up against it, but he was able to adjust to the times. He played the fiddle and sang, and loved to play baseball. His photograph on the wall showed a young man of 27 with good humor and intensity. He took a wife in 1936, Oveta, the youngest and prettiest daughter of a farmer from Clovis, New Mexico. They had a child (my dad) and when the war came all the men in the family went into uniform except him. The little two bedroom house he built after the war was towered over by three giant pine trees he planted in ’47 along with some apricot trees. He taught himself the income tax business and after 50 years he was an expert and invaluable to the successful farmers on the plains. In this part of the country it was not socially acceptable to flaunt wealth in the midst of so many poor people so a millionaire farmer might be identified only by his gold rimmed glasses, if at all. Bill was a man who knew how to keep a secret in a town where gossip was the only sport besides football. The town looked like a smaller version of the one in the film The Last Picture Show and the human beings there were very similar to those characters of Larry McMurtry as well. The characters from the comedic play Tuna Christmas were taken directly from the fertile imagination of a man who grew up in this very town of 1,000 people. I often thought they must count the stray cats and dogs to arrive at this census number. The wind would blow for weeks straight with a gale force that dried up and killed plants. The incessant wind seemed to drive the people crazy, much like the affect of three straight weeks of non-stop rain on the Gulf Coast had. A thirty mile per hour wind blowing non-stop for 2-3 weeks ionizes the air molecules and this has a direct affect on human behavior. Some people simply go crazy, while others are merely irritable as hell. The temperature and weather extremes made for ice storms and hail, droughts and torrential rains. Fruit trees would blossom and late freezes routinely would come and kill the buds. It was a hard land for dreamers to live in. The territory was the last place Europeans had come to settle. The Indians were subdued and driven out in the 1870’s and 1880’s and the giant cattle ranches of people like Charles Goodnight gave way to farming as late as 1908. The land was cheap for a reason, it was brutal. It was only when the underground aquifer of the Ogallala was exploited that farming really was profitable. People here still seemed cut off from the outside world. I took care of Bill as best I could by making him breakfast and dinner, and doing the chores. When I first arrived the stress of moving brought on a relapse and I couldn’t sleep but for two hours at a stretch. He was good company and we talked about everything and I finally got to know him. It was a real gift to me. All my life my parents and I had come to visit for three days and practically died from boredom. There was nothing to read, there was no one to talk to and there was nowhere to go. The town had one traffic light, a blinking yellow and 50 or more churches. We were always glad to get out of there when the time came. Since we were strangers each other most of our visits consisted of talking about the weather and playing cards to pass the time. Now I got to learn a lot more about my grandfather and I really liked him. He wasn’t necessarily the person I thought he was. His house had the farmer’s almanac, readers digest, and five different versions of the bible, and that was it. I had imagined he was a lot more conservative than he really was but he was very pragmatic and down to earth. He told me about life at the beginning of the century and living through the Depression and WWII. Most of all I appreciated his sense of humor and his positive outlook. He could always see the good side of any situation or at least the humor and he always thought about the future. He was smart enough to have done anything in life, but he was from a place and an era where surviving by itself was an accomplishment. I could never leave the house for very long and leave him by himself so I sat in this little house in this little town for four months until I wondered if I would go stir crazy. I was sick and he was sicker and the atmosphere was less than ideal.
In June when my symptoms were less severe I made arrangements for someone to stay with Bill and I got in the car and headed towards the mountains for a few days. I didn’t have a reservation at the fishing camp in New Mexico, nor any money for one, but I could feel the mountain calling me. My illness had been getting worse by the year and in the fourth year I was beginning to lose hope of surviving. The mountain and the river where the family had gone all these years was the antithesis of death and something in me that wanted to live seemed to be driving me in that direction. I drove all night and arrived at the foot of the mountain in the predawn hours. I parked the car in the trees where hopefully no one would find it for a while and trespassed onto the land where I had always been welcome. It was the day of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year but the sun was hours away. I hiked in the dark with a back pack filled with some fruit and water as I traveled about 3 miles in the dark over rough ground. The black bears were always very active in the predawn hours so I had to be cautious. I came to the end of the trail and laid down to rest and wait for the sun to come up so I could make my way among the rocks and sheer slopes that made up the last few miles. The sun came up and I woke, stretched and made my way to the Box, the place where the river came out of the mountain itself. I got there as the sun crested the mountain and shone down upon the face of the water. The may flies rose up above the trees and the water shimmered over the rapids formed by massive boulders thrown down from the mountain. I ate my fruit and then climbed up the treacherous scree slope of loose rock to my favorite bear cave in the side of the mountain. To my horror the roof of the cave had fallen and the cave was destroyed. As a boy I had climbed into this cave carpeted in eons of pine needles and bear scat imagining the people who came before me and who might be sleeping forever beneath me. Now the cave was gone forever but there were other caves small and large for the fox and bear. I went back down the slope and stood on an outcrop that commanded a view 60 feet above the water and 100 feet back from its edge. The Box was bounded by impassable walls that angled back to peaks 2,000 feet above the water all the way up to 11,500 feet elevation. The only place for animals to migrate across the river and head north into Colorado from this side of the mountain was past the trail I had traveled this morning. The place farthest from human habitation was right where I was, at the mouth of the Box. I watched in amazement as a brown bear crossed the river in front of me and paused to enjoy the cool water. Her fur was light brown to near golden to brown and when she shook the water from her body it looked to my laser stare as if liquid gold was coming off of her haunches. She took her time and browsed along the edge of the river perfectly at home. Within moments she stumbled over my orange peels and was engrossed by something she had never seen or smelled before. She saw with her nose and not her eyes. Her back was to me and I was 100 feet away and 60 feet above her. The wind was blowing towards me and yet a few moments later her whole body stiffened and she froze. She had somehow detected my presence. She wheeled her immense body around and headed straight up the slope about 100 feet to my right. Where I had to carefully crawl she was able to flat out run up the loose slope. I gaped in amazement as she drew even with me and glanced directly at me where she had known I was all along. She was terrified of me and kept climbing in a dead run like her life depended on it. I was glad she was afraid because there was no way I could cover ground as fast as she could. I waited quite a while to make sure she was gone before I approached the river and went for a swim in the freshly melted snow. I hid my pack and my clothes and wearing only my tennis shoes swam the rapids to the far side and walked around the rough slope covered in pine trees. As I was headed back fishermen came and sat above where my pack and clothes were hidden and began to tease their fly rods out into the still parts where the trout lay in wait. One of the men found my pack and my clothes and began to do me a favor by carrying it back to camp for me so I yelled at him from behind a tree to leave it. He could barely hear my shouted voice above the rapids but he realized someone was there and decided they could carry their own packs back to camp. I slept fitfully in the rocks with my knife in my hand after watching the brown bear take its 500 pounds and sprint up the near 40 degree angle of a scree slope. Even healthy I can’t run that fast going downhill. Late the next day I tried to sneak through camp to my car and leave unobserved but everyone wanted to see what kind of person ran around the mountain wearing only tennis shoes. I guess word had gotten around. The old man who grew up on the mountain met me at the car and admonished me not trespass again or I’d regret it. I sheepishly apologized and promised not to do it again, told him of the family connection to the mountain and asked after his grown children. He let me go without calling the police and towing the car away and I paid rent on a cabin for one day. I left with my tail between my legs and weak with hunger but I felt as if several hundred pounds of weight had been taken off of my shoulders. It was good to see the little house and Bill again and I felt like I could carry on for another four months straight. After 8 months of caring for Bill I realized that I was doing a poor job of it and the family prevailed upon me to allow Bill to go into the rest home. It was 5 blocks away and the people who worked there had all grown up around here and took good care of their charges. In the words of one person who inspected the homes for a living, “If I had to live in a retirement home it would be that one”. I was very suspicious of these places because all the ones I had seen as a kid were awful but this facility was the best one on the south plains. I visited Bill 2-3 times a week and brought a hamburger or some food he couldn’t get there and visited for an hour or two. His Parkinson’s disease had gotten so bad by this time that he had trouble walking anymore. I convinced myself that it was all for the best. My illness was growing more intense and so in September when my symptoms relented enough to allow me to walk around I decided to do something I had always wanted to do. I bought a plane ticket to Cuba and went to look around for 2-3 weeks. I had the distinct feeling that this would be my last hurrah. I was passing more blood and virtually unable to sleep much of the time. My exercise for the day would be to try to walk around the block without falling down. The doctors I went to out of desperation were unable or unwilling to help me so I figured what the hell; I didn’t have anything to lose. I didn’t get scared until the day before I left but then it was too late to back out. It was illegal for a US citizen to travel to Cuba so I had to fly to Mexico City first and then over to Havana. It was my first Communist country to visit. The government forced you to register and pay for a state run hotel room so they could keep tabs on you but I got out of there after one night and stayed with a local family for $20 a day. The first night I cruised the main streets on foot. The lights were off everywhere, the young prostitutes were aggressive and even the military looked at me like I was a mark. I spoke to a few people but the atmosphere was wrong so I returned to the hotel and away from the desperation on the street. Cuban citizens were forbidden from entering the hotels and tourist places. It was a two tiered society and they were at the bottom in their own country. I found a friendly taxi driver the next day and did drive by tourism. You drive up to the famous landmark not getting out of the car, cross it off your list and go to the next one. The only place I went into was a bar that Hemingway liked. The next day an Italian tourist was killed by a bomb in the place. The anti-Castro forces from Miami were still at it after 40 years but it didn’t seem to be getting them anywhere. The only tourists here for the most part were from Mexico, Spain, and Italy. I always like to go where there are no Americans and here I had succeeded spectacularly. The Russians had pulled out completely taking their rubles with them and Cuba was on hard times. There were still Russian Trabants driving around and Russian appliances but that was their only vestige. I saw a couple of North Koreans but the only foreign help Cuba were getting was in the form of the occasional Scandinavian engineer working on their fertilizer plants. The Russian appliances were breaking down and the Trabants were often being repaired in the middle of the road. The local people in the city traveled in large diesel buses and hitched rides in the country in the beds of dump trucks. The trains broke down constantly and the most prevalent form of mass transit was a bicycle, usually with two or three people on it. Cuban entrepreneurs drove taxis that were mostly 1950 era American cars but local people couldn’t afford taxis. Havana was dark at night and in the morning the smoke from charcoal fires that cooked breakfast rose up from everywhere signaling another day in the worker’s paradise. It was illegal for anyone to draw an official salary of more than $50 a month. Most people were paid a fraction of that. All the teachers and PhD’s drove taxis or sold black market goods to stay alive. Party members drove nice cars and lived in fine apartments and could pick and choose among the women as they wished. Young women were forced into prostitution so that their family might eat or they might secure some kind of future for themselves. People were hungry and so generally no one ate in public or sang unless they were being paid. In the words of one man, “Everything is for Fidel”. There was a ration for families that consisted of a little cooking oil, three pounds of rice, a mystery fish paste, and some inedible bread. One man observed that he could eat the three pounds of rice himself in one day. I saw a scrawny kid with short hair and glassy eyes and I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. “A tourist’, he replied. I was easily identified as an American by everyone at a distance of 100 meters and everyone wanted something from me. The hungry kids wanted change, the prostitutes wanted $20 dollars, the taxi drivers wanted to drive me around, and the cops wanted me to empty my pockets. I told the cops I was from Canada. A few people hated me because I was an American but most people just wanted something to eat or for the nightmare to end. I met a special girl who was studying art at university and we rented a taxi and drove out of the city to the south of the island. We walked through the rather unspoiled landscape and enjoyed bird watching and I finally got the feeling of nature again. I managed to avoid the tourist traps and tried to live among the locals. My energy and health began to fail and I was forced into inactivity and eventually I had to leave. I imagined that in the future I might return to buy a small property, like a rundown 6 room hotel in the south and come spend the winters here to write and watch the surf roll in. I gave the girl all of my belongings to sell so that she might eat for a few weeks in return for one of her paintings. I told her that I would get her out and bring her to the US to live the good life. She said I was her last hope. We reluctantly parted in Havana and I took a taxi to the airport. Since I had given her all my money all I had was my ticket and $10. The airport worker told me to pay the $30 airport tax. “Everything is for Fidel”. I tried to talk to the airport manager but he passed the buck. I was tired, didn’t feel well and resented being sucked dry one more time. I was less than diplomatic towards them which they were not used to putting up with from anyone, much less a blue eyed American devil. Some tourists from Spain befriended me as I sat in the airport and I borrowed $20 and got their address and promised to repay them. Eventually I did mail the man $40 but he probably thought I was a nut for doing so. I walked up to the airport workers counter and paid them their $30 tax. They had enjoyed my distress at being stuck in Cuba so in return I enjoyed theirs. “Viva la Revolucion”, I told them with a wicked laughing smile. They did not appreciate my sense of humor. My baggage was searched very thoroughly in an exaggerated manner and the security guards hovered around me like I was a threat to national security. At last our flight was announced and we all walked out to the tarmac. The ramp to the jet was guarded by two soldiers, one at the bottom and one at the top. Neither one of them took their eyes off me. It was very clear they had something planned but just what that was I could only guess. As the line moved up the ramp and I drew even with him the first soldier at the bottom of the ramp began to do a close order drill that ended with the barrel of his rifle aimed at my chest. I watched him grinning an evil grin and then I turned slightly away. If he was going to shoot me it would be in the back. The other passengers acted like they were trying to ignore the show and failing miserably. When I got to the top of the ramp with only 3-4 people behind me the second soldier again began to do close order drill with his rifle. This man needed more practice so he began twirling his rifle just above and past my head numerous times trying to see if he could make my hair move without fracturing my skull. This part finally scared me, a state I’m normally too stupid to assume, and I locked eyes with him and then once again tried to ignore his smiling face. He appeared just about to butt stroke me when the line moved forward and I scurried into the plane. When the wheels of the jet left the tarmac I was weary and grateful. In my fatigue and relief, I began to talk to myself, “And you thought Guatemala was a close call”. When I first got back I had called the girl from Cuba but the phone call was the most expensive long distance phone call in the world. I began to write her letters and send her money but the letters never got to their destination and after seven attempts I resigned myself to never seeing the girl again. When I first got back to the south plains I couldn’t get off the couch for 2-3 weeks. This was about typical of what I had gone through for nearly five years but now late in the fifth year the relapse that came next was the worst one ever. Part of the cause was my exertions on my trip and part of it was just the natural progression that was unmistakable. I was devastated by the intense pain of the muscle disorder centered at C4 but now more than ever the process of the deterioration of the white matter of my brain stem and brain raced out of control. For a long time the disease had resembled a light case of Polio or an aggressive case of Multiple Sclerosis. The muscles of my neck and calves would become too weak to use and them turn to a jelly like consistency and be absorbed by my body. The muscles of attention, the ones that had to work constantly to keep my head erect or my body standing would literally disappear in a matter of a week. The fatigue was always the kind of profound fatigue that puts marathon runners in bed for weeks. Trying to live with this and the inability to sleep more than two fitful hours at a time had made me face up to the fact that I was slowly dying and absent a miracle would probably be dead in a few years. The only reason I was not in a facility being cared for was that the symptoms rose and fell enough for me to walk around for a few hours half the time. The relapse that I had been dreading for so long now came on with a vengeance. I was unable to walk from one room to the other without a terror of falling and being stranded. My ability to think and concentrate became so affected that I could only communicate in 3 or 4 word sentences. The ability to process what was said to me or to watch TV and take in the words was so attenuated that I could not follow the word streams that made up sentences. Finally my time sense became completely inoperable such that 8 hours seemed like 15 minutes. Every day for months I staggered into the living room and sat in a chair with my eyes rolled back in my head. The white matter of my brain and central nervous system was being degraded and literally eaten away such that now I could not stand light, noise, nor process sensory input of any kind. I could not watch TV or listen to the radio or read. I just sat in a chair with my eyes rolled back in my head with all the lights off in silence. Looking in the mirror I saw a person who was ashen faced and resembled nothing so much as a groaning zombie with eyes half turned upward. I contemplated getting a video camera and taping a final statement to show people what had happened to me and that I was committing suicide out of necessity, not from drug abuse or lack of character as people were want to believe…but I just didn’t have the energy. I don’t know how many months went by in this state, but by summer I was able to listen to soothing slow classical music without feeling pain or sensory overload. I still could not listen to fast music or watch TV. Gradually I was able to read again and by fall I was still sitting in the chair all day covered by a quilt and listening to classical music and reading. My time sense had returned to normal. By winter I could converse normally again and didn’t mind when people visited for short period of time as long as my energy held up. Christmas came and I was able to process information in the form of TV and streams of normal conversation such that I could understand it completely again. I had sat in the chair for the better part of a year and concentrated on classical music through all but the worst of it. Eventually I was writing the notes in my head out of boredom to try to anticipate the perfect placement of a note and to try to do better than the composer I was listening to or to anticipate his next move. The process of writing baroque classical in my head continued after my recovery. Now it was a normal feature of my consciousness to “hear” music playing in my head. I was trying to write it so long in a pain staking manner but now it seemed to “play itself’ as if the two or three strands of melody were coming out of my head without conscious effort. It was bizarre but I accepted it as a consequence of the immersion into the music during my last relapse. I didn’t consider the music my own but it usually wasn’t familiar to me and it was no longer poor quality or forced, it was just “above average”. A new year was about to start and on the first day a good friend came by for the first time in months and asked me to accompany her to a fortune teller in Lubbock, about an hour’s drive. I had never been to a fortune teller and considered the practice one for weak minded or fearful people who needed to be fleeced. She promised to pay and told me it was very important to her so I went along for the ride to get out of town for a few hours in the company of an attractive woman. “What do you want to find out from her”, I asked. “I need to know some things, how the New Year will go, other things”. She refused to tell me what was on her mind that was so important but I figured maybe it was none of my business. The fortune teller lived in a modest home in Lubbock. I was kind of wide eyed but this was a first for me and I didn’t know what to expect. She greeted us warmly and brought us into the office together. She was Hispanic, middle aged, short dark hair, and kind of intense. Her office was a bedroom that had an alter made up of dozens of candles, religious figures, photographs, and symbolic offerings. It was neither sinister nor comforting to me. The lady gushed that one of her clients had just given her a new car as a gift. She obviously had power over the minds of some people. I wondered if all my lovely friend was paying her was my $50 fee. I let my anxious friend go first and reveal her soul, or I guess the other way around. She came out acting both relieved and a little overwhelmed. Maybe she got what she needed to hear. I went in and she had me sit and face her and her eyes became very wide and she spoke about the power she had at her finger tips. I reacted not at all neither positive nor negative nor did I even blink being completely still. Her intensity and her performance and stare washed over me like a brief storm and then she sat there looking at me like I was a lover who would not perform or a unicorn. Then she was demure and taciturn. “You are a very lucky person”, she said. “Go ahead and ask me what you came to ask me”. Since I had not come to ask her anything it took me a few minutes. “Will I ever accomplish anything, anything great”; “Will I ever fulfill my destiny?” “Will I ever write my book, will I ever write my novel?” I had had the conceit for years that I would someday write the book that explained Vietnam War Era just as John Dos Pasos and Norman Mailer had defined theirs. Now I wasn’t so sure, life was too complicated for certainty anymore. She seemed confused by what I had said or maybe just the last part about the novel. She just repeated again, “You are a very lucky person”. I wasn’t sure what that meant. Did it mean that I was blessed or did it mean she couldn’t control my will with her piercing black eyes and make me sign over the title to my car? I waited for her to elaborate then I repeated exactly what I asked the first time again, leaving out the part about the book. She seemed even more confused now and tilted her head and asked me, “Is it music, is that what it is?” Somehow she must have sensed it so I told her the only personal information she would get from me. “I hear music all the time”. “I write it and it plays in my head for the better part of a year”. I don’t think this information cleared things up for her because she just told me I was a very lucky person for the third or fourth time and seemed uncomfortable, maybe even a little shocked or afraid. She signaled that we were finished and I rejoined my friend and after she paid we said goodbye, got in the car and left. My friend would not discuss what her visit was like and I wasn’t sure what mine meant so we just kind of changed the subject. A week or two later she came and asked me what went on and I was able to tell her. She was either noncommittal or underwhelmed. I was very much alone now. The past year of inactivity and illness had made all my social contacts gravitate away from me. The experience of chronic illness and disability was very isolating in and of itself, but being stranded in the house for months on end made it even worse. I managed to avoid a major relapse again just the usually ups and downs of being stuck on the couch for a few weeks at a time. I read books like never before and listened to classical music all the time. I kept trying to write it in my head and I kept having it pour out of me almost like I was listening to the radio. Some of it was old some of it was new. June came around and I rented a cabin on the mountain for 2-3 days and headed that way one more time. I had survived the mother of all relapses after my trip to Cuba but I knew that unless I got a miracle the next bad one would leave me permanently disabled or dead. I had lived with death on my shoulder for a very long time by now. I am very stubborn but the intense suffering and chronic pain wears even the toughest human being down after the space of a few years. I knew from personal experience now there worse things than death and death had in some strange way become my friend. Years ago when I had been a nature photographer crawling down deer trails I had come across poisonous snakes in the swamp constantly. Most of the cotton mouths were silent and still and the copper heads were even worse with camouflage that made them nearly invisible. The coral snakes weren’t so bad. The snakes did not want to bite me but I was going to step on one or crawl on top of one eventually and it would have no choice. I found the idea unnerving that there was nothing I could do. Their poison could take your arm or take your life. One fall I found a small young copper head about 8 inches long preparing to face the winter. I gently and carefully put the snake in my camera bag and took it home. I found an old fish tank and bought a wire mesh top and clips to lock the creature in so the cat couldn’t get to him. This was illegal and just a bad idea but like all fools I rationalized. I was helping the snake survive the winter and would release him in the spring. I placed the snake I named Sid Vicious in the landscaped terrarium with a toad, a frog and a daily parade of geckos and insects to eat. The toad went underground and the insects and lizards went into Sid’s gullet. I watched him strike the geckos and how their bodies turned pink and then red and unable to move. Sid refused to eat in front of me so I gave him his privacy. I sexed the snake and realized it was not a Sid but a Sidweena. I was careful when I fed her and cleaned her cage out even more carefully. I put the cage near the head of my bed. Gradually I lost my fear of poisonous snakes but I watched her kill and eat lots of creatures so I did not lose my respect for her venom. Friends came to visit from Ireland who had never met a man that slept with a poisonous snake. Doesn’t everyone? I eventually came to realize that my snake had an emotional life and I had committed a true crime by taking her out of the wild…not just against man’s law. In early spring I let her go in exactly the place where I found her and imagined to myself I hadn’t done anything wrong. I was no longer afraid of poisonous snakes I found in the wild, but I knew they could cripple or kill me. Poisonous snakes were, in a strange way, my friends. I understood them now. In terms of my health my body had betrayed me for five and a half years now. I had passed blood off and on for nearly three years. I had been unable to sleep, run, work, or even turn my head most of the time. For almost an entire year I had largely been confined to a chair virtually unable to speak or follow the track of time. When I had come out of it I could no longer remember things with the machine like precision that had been mine. I had seen my physical body all but die and now my mind had nearly died too. I had endured agony for years, alone. Death was now my friend. I had the smell of her in my hair and my clothes like a lover whose long strands turn up on your shoulder or on your pants. She held no more surprises for me except for that last little step over the edge. I had gone as far with her as I could and still draw breath. I didn’t want to die but I didn’t want to remain trapped in that chair with my eyes rolled halfway back in my head either. The void opened up before me and I didn’t want to enter but neither did I run away anymore. It was time to go back to the mountain again.
I rented a cabin this time and drove across New Mexico up through Taos and beyond. The mountain loomed before me solid granite rising 2,000 feet straight up in a giant megalith that was 3.5 billion years old. It seemed to draw me towards it like the ancient alien black monolith from the movie 2001. I practically came into this world at its feet and now maybe I would leave in its arms. I arrived late and went down to the river to listen to the sound of the water rise up and drown out every other sound but the wind. At night the moon rose over the mountain and hung low enough in the sky to touch. Near midnight the meteorites streaked across the sky every 10-15 minutes in colors of green and orange that no one else saw. In the morning dawn was an hour away and the cabin was cold and dark. The rod and reel felt good in my hand and the gravel crunched noisily under my feet as the world slept on. Today was the summer solstice again but there was a sensation of the need to hurry even on the longest day. The altitude made running up the steep trail out of the question and it took me two hours to go 3.5 miles. It was nearing eight o’clock and the sun would be cresting the mountain in less than an hour. I made it to the end of the trail and then down to the river’s edge. I began to hop from boulder to boulder concentrating on not missing the landing or slipping off the edge of the smooth water polished stones. Closer to the edge of the river the going was easier and I picked up the pace even more. Soon I was going flat out as fast as I could without disaster when I slid on the moss of a flat boulder and plunged into the river. The cold water was a shock to my system and I caught the edge of the boulder and kept my head from going under water. I was on the edge of the rapids that roiled the water and made immense sucking sounds as it squeezed between two towering rocks near the center of the stream. I started to bob and float away from the flat rock I was against and out to join the pull of the river. The water moved so fast even if it had been less than 3 feet deep no one could have stood up against its force for a second. The rapids led to short 3 foot waterfalls, squeezed between boulders and then on the rapids and to other falls further down. It ran very fast for about 8 miles and I probably wouldn’t have lasted for one. I used the index and middle fingers of both hands to push down and raised myself up 4-6 inches in the water that was drawing me away. If I had tried to pull myself toward the rock my hands would have slipped on the top of the wet rock. The upward force moved me closer and I pressed down with my palms now and rose up out of the water incredibly still holding the rod and reel. I sat for a few seconds and realized how close I had come to disaster, and then I started to cautiously move from rock to rock again on wet shoes. I noticed the sun was not exactly waiting for me so I soon found myself hopping more quickly than I should have and finally I was against the edge of the bank again where the boulders were flatter and the going was easier. Less than 5 minutes had passed since my near miss but now I was racing again at full speed on the slick rocks. I race the sun. Close to the opening of the Box I discarded the rod and reel and found a large boulder that hung out over the water facing a small set of rapids about 100 feet from the mouth of the Box. The rays of the sun on the far shore told me that I still had 15 minutes to spare before the sun crested the peak and shone down on the face of the water directly in front of me. I settled in and relaxed on the rock as if it was my second home. I let the atmosphere of the air and the water settle over me. I crossed my legs and got even more comfortable. This was where I belonged. I stared at the spray above the little rapids that jumped about 2-3 feet above the surface and concentrated on it to the exclusion of all other things. A few minutes passed, maybe more before a faint prism formed above the rapids as the first rays of the longest day crested the top of the mountain. The colors of the rainbow ran back and forth from left to right and back again. It was a beautiful display of nature, a rainbow dancing 3 feet tall on top of the rapids, given birth to by the spray. I followed its every nuance in a thousand twists and turns the spectral colors became more brilliant and taller as the moments passed. After about 10 minutes the rainbow was growing taller and rising up higher above the river and had left the spray far behind. The rainbow was now intense and brilliant beyond belief and it had overpowered my concentration and all my senses except for my feeling of wonder and amazement. The random strands of light now rose high up into the air so that sitting 4 feet above the water with my legs crossed on the boulder I had to look up higher and higher at the display 30-40 feet in front of me. When the dancing rainbow had held my every attention for 20 minutes, eyes darting back and forth upon it to squeeze out every color and movement it began to happen. I started to place notes exactly where the movement of the immense columns of light danced. For several minutes the music and the light worked their magic separately. Then the tower of dancing columns of light was starting to become syncopated to the tentative lines of music coming slowly yet more insistently out of my head. The random dance of the rainbow 30 feet above the water had now become my very own light harp that seemed to respond to the music playing in my head. Perhaps it was the music that played in my head that responded to the movements of the rainbow, I could not be sure. The music that had been tentative and halting at first now seemed to gather strength and what had been one melody was now an orchestra in full voice that wove music as intricate and simple and beautiful as any music that I had ever heard before. The way the strings and wood winds all took turns weaving in and out of the main line melody surely one of the great masters would envy me. I seemed unable to pull my eyes off the spectacle but I suddenly realized that I must somehow capture the music that was tumbling out of me without hesitation or reservation. I thought for a moment that I would grab my pen and scribble the line of the melody and the interleave of instruments as they took turns progressing the construction of this cathedral of sound. Without turning away I struggled with myself before realizing that if I attempted to capture the music I would have to break my eyes away from the light harp of the Gods and thus I would lose the music entirely. It was with frustration and then acceptance that I decided it was better to experience the music than to attempt to capture it and lose the stands of light and music both. I half mourned and half rejoiced in the spectacle and the loss. The music continued in full voice and power perfectly syncopated with the rainbows movements for about 15 minutes before I could feel something happening to me. The totality of the beauty that I was both witnessing and participating in seemed to overwhelm all my sensations of joy and ecstasy. It seemed as if something inside me was beginning to open or to tip over into a larger whole. When one begins to pass out and lose consciousness you can feel you mind begin to start to be overwhelmed and this is all I have to compare it too. Save for the intensity of pure joy that the light harp and the music had made me feel it was as if my sense of the beauty of the universe was making me pass out but I did not lose consciousness, quite the opposite. My eyes started to rise upwards and to slowly roll back in my head and the sensation of a streaming river of yellow and gold colored light opened as if in a vision. I was completely unaware of my immediate surroundings. The light seemed to flow to me as the river flowed to me and spread across my entire field of vision. The light began to shine more intensely now not as a river of yellow and gold but as a beacon that shone upon me and concentrated its mind on me. At the far end of the river of yellow and gold there were rays of white light opening up a small doorway that grew larger. I felt as if I stood in a presence and that someone was reaching out to me to bestow a communication upon me yet no words were ever spoken. The light and the presence engulfed and enfolded me and I seemed to eagerly seek to be a part of it to be at one with this force that opened up before me and overwhelmed my already overwhelmed senses. I may have spoken the word yes or tried to speak but the sheer force of the light went directly into my mind and took me beyond where I had ever stood before. I tipped over completely into another realm of consciousness. I woke gradually as if coming out of a very deep trance. Ever so slowly I realized where and who I was and became aware of my surroundings. My eyes had been rolled back in my head and I sat in a perfect lotus position with my hands in the lotus position thumb and forefinger forming a circle. I had never sat in a perfect lotus position in my life. I had tried but the position was too uncomfortable to sustain. The intensity of what I had been through had left me drained and my head and shoulders began to drop towards my feet. I glanced up to see the light harp but it was gone. The position of the sun made it clear that perhaps 3-4 hours had passed since I first sat here, maybe more. My normally sharp time sense was completely disrupted. With a start I realized the extraordinary experience that I had just been through even as I tried to figure out exactly what had happened. The light harp of the gods, the rainbow, the music, and then the river of golden yellow light that shone down as if from an open door and then the sheer power and force of the presence that I had stood in that had overwhelmed my senses. As soon as I regained normal consciousness my head and shoulders slouched forward in exhaustion and I realized I had been given a great gift. I struggled to raise my head up to the heavens where the light had emanated in pure wonder the first time and the second time I managed to raise my head and attempted to say thank you but no words would come. I sat on the rock for about 30-45 minutes and tried to collect my thoughts, to understand what had happened to me. I wondered if one of the great master composers had communicated with me across the great divide using music and light but that didn’t quite fit. I had no clear idea what had happened in those lost hours. Then the central idea that impressed itself on me was that I would be destroyed, my body and my personality would be obliterated but that something very central to my core being was that same light I had witnessed and that had transformed me forever. At our core we are all a part of this light that goes on forever and infuses everything everywhere. At our core we cannot be destroyed. I would be destroyed but at my core I would go on forever. That is the basic message that I consciously received from the experience that was beyond words. I reluctantly took that gift and got slowly up to my feet and walked haltingly back to the bank of the river and then slowly back to camp in a daze. Normally if I had sat in that position for 30-40 minutes I would not have been able to walk. I was drained and stunned but even after hours of stationary “prayer” I walked without any problem. I took a day off to recover and then slowly came down off the mountain with reluctance and resignation. I wondered how many times over the last 20,000 years men had blazed the trail I had walked and whose footsteps I had unknowingly trod in. I had always pictured my mountain as a place where native people had walked before me and I imagined at times I could feel their presence as I had in the bear cave. Now I felt as if I had walked where these people had walked and I felt closer to them than ever. I went slowly and quietly home making deep sighs I could not hear. It was hard to put this experience in perspective because I had never read about one like it nor knew how to process it in the greater scheme of things. I had had experiences that were hard to describe before and had discarded them for the same reason. Yet none of them approached the power of this event in my life. The experience altered me forever yet in a way it was like growing a third arm or a third eye, you don’t really know what to do with it. It slowly settled into my unconscious mind and I just tried to get on with my life as it was. Incredibly as it sounds I simply forget about it. When I was 12 and 15 I had out of body experiences and I forgot about those as well. They both happened while playing sports, the first in the middle of a hook shot the second when I hit a triple off the fence. Each time I was in the middle of a physical event I had practiced over and over. I felt a rush of adrenaline and instead of seeing through my own eyes it was if I was outside my body looking down at myself from above as the event played out. I had no frame of reference to understand the experience so I just forgot about it until later in life. The second experience at the age of 15 was more intense. I was batting with no one on and I pulled the ball in between center and right field. As soon as I made contact with the ball I saw the action from about eight feet above and behind my head. My perspective seemed to stay there above and behind my body. The ball one hopped into the fence and somewhere near second base I seemed to be back in my body. I rounded second and lost a lot of speed and was only a couple of strides from second when the ball was caught by the second baseman. There was no way I should have tried to take third and I never looked at my third base coach. I did a clumsy head first slide into third and was safe because the second baseman couldn’t get the ball out of his glove. My coach stood there shaking his head disgusted with my base running. The bench went wild but I was embarrassed and confused. I thought about my visual perspective later but it made no sense so I put it out of my mind. Much later I would remember an anthropology class I had taken when I was 21 years old that talked about the San people, the Kung. They were genetically the oldest living modern human beings on earth. At night they would build a great fire and while the women and children sat nearby and clapped and sang and chanted the men would circle the fire. They held their bodies in a half crouch, head and shoulders leaning forward, arms tight at their sides, their muscles clenched tight and rigid as they stutter stepped around the fire for hours. The older more experienced men would be able to achieve a type of transport more easily and control their vision journey. The younger men took longer to achieve the trance state and had to be watched more carefully so that they did not throw themselves into the fire or leave their bodies never to return. Once a Kung warrior reached to moment of climax or transport he fell to the ground and the other men would hold him gently and softly rub his arms and forehead and blew short breaths against his skin so that he would know he was still in his body and would not leave it forever and die. The journey might take them to a place where they would bring back a song or a fable and these would be captured and become part of the lore and culture of the tribe. They might do some healing of the sick or find that which had been lost. I recalled the words of the journeyman. “I leave my body and I go up to Gods house and I make myself very small and I do the work that I have to do there quickly and I return to my body”. “And this is my Atum, this is the thing that I do, this is my Atum”. The cave rock paintings in the sub-Saharan Desert show the dark figures of men ascending a ladder up into heaven recording the same journeymen from the north 6,000 years before. The Inuit shaman with his drum beats out a rhythm and works his healing upon the sick or a divination of the future. Many a shaman has achieved this transport and not been able to find his way back to his body, which withers and dies, never regaining consciousness. Later I would come to feel that to my mind I was walking in the footsteps of a thousand generations.
The health experience of the past year was so awful that when I returned home I went to a health food store and asked about a doctor of non-traditional medicine. They gave me a name and for a couple of months I forgot about it. The sleep disorder got so bad that I couldn’t sleep again for months and I felt like I was treading on the edge of life and death again. I went to a specialist in Lubbock and after 4 visits during which he did nothing I talked to the nurse and he finally gave me something that made it possible for me to sleep. Once again traditional medicine kind of left me flat, but at least I was sleeping again. I looked up the name of the doctor I was given and went for a visit. He was an osteopath, a form of humanity which I had never met before. He had told me to bring my vitamin supplements and as he looked them over he said, ‘Well, you were on the right track”. He examined my back and commented on the ever present back spasms. He sketched out a diet and vitamin regiment for me to try and gave me an intravenous drip of vitamins B-12, C, and magnesium. I passed out for an hour as the IV drip did its work. After the doctor and nurse saw my back spasms and saw me pass out it was clear they thought I was sick and needed treatment. This was the first time in five plus years I was given medicine and not treated as a malingering psychosomatic. They actually treated me and believed me when I told them I was ill. I could hardly believe it. I stayed on the diet for two weeks and my symptoms mitigated. When I went off the diet to test the proposition I immediately suffered a brief relapse. I doubt everything but I couldn’t doubt what works. The IV drips of massive doses of vitamins gave me energy for at least 3-4 days. The 9 different types of vitamins he had me on and the diet made life tolerable again. They informed me that many people in my straights often were able to slowly rebuild their immune systems and recover gradually over the space of several years. I had been sick for five years and imagined I could get well in 2 more years. The first half of the year I ate the food out of my garden and brown rice and tried to take care of myself. The diet was hard to follow in our modern world. Eat oats (oatmeal) and eggs, fish, liver, chicken and vegetables. Avoid sugar and packaged food of any kind plus anything that was carbohydrate was too glycemic in the blood stream. Bread and corn and white rice are quickly converted to sugars and sugar, especially in its pure form, was toxic. Everything touched by the hand of man was pretty much messed up. Even juice was sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. I drank water or tomato juice. The doctor believed that the human body was capable of healing itself given the right kind of nutrition. Restoring blood flow to affected areas of the body increased the oxygen in tissues which kills pathogens. I had a hard time at first buying into the dogma of the osteopath and asked him some hard questions. “What about epidemic disease like the influenza epidemic of 1918?” The old man smiled and said, “My father was a doctor at L.A. County hospital during the epidemic”. “They had two wings of the hospital, one devoted to Allopathic doctors (MD’s) and one wing devoted to Osteopathy”. “In the Allopathic wing they lost 50% of their patients and in the Osteopathic wing they only lost 10% to the epidemic”. I never went back to check up on his facts but the doctor had a lot of cache with me. He was 80 years old and played tennis every day and was ranked at the top of the USTA seniors doubles bracket. If I kept on the vitamins and diet I felt better and as soon as I got off the diet by eating something with sugar in it or a glycemic food I would have a relapse of symptoms. You can’t argue with success. After a few months it became easy to stay on the diet. I used honey as a substitute for sugar and didn’t eat anything in a package. I lived on salmon and eggs and butter and vegetables out of my garden. Every week I went down to his office and got an IV drip of B-12, Vitamin C, and Magnesium. I would feel nearly human for about 3 days and then less so. I was still in pretty bad shape but I was doing better and I had hope now because I could see a way out. This man had helped a lot of people and he was an inspiration to me. I contemplated someday going study osteopathy and making a difference in the lives of people who were suffering like I was. It was the first time I had had the luxury of thinking about the future in years. My grandfather had an older brother who was 100 years old and still up and around. My grandfather’s aunt was 102 years old when I met her at a family reunion many years before and she had looked like she was a vigorous 70 year old. She was a retired school teacher who was still driving a car and her mind was very sharp. In fact when I met her I was 25 and she seemed to me to have more on the ball mentally than I did. She had been born before the transcontinental railroad was built, before the telephone and electric light and when I met her men had landed on the moon a generation before. It was amazing that the human body could last so long and a human life could encompass so much change in the world. These people had good genes and had lived all their lives in the rural setting of the Midwest where life was slower. In contrast my mom had had three heart attacks from job stress and my father had just recently had one as well in his late 50’s. I decided to reevaluate my life and what was important to me. Feeling better, I started fixing and selling used cars on the internet. Clients would drive or fly a thousand miles into town and would buy my antique that I had brought back to life. For a short while I worked with a cousin and uncle who had a house moving business. On one job the house completely collapsed while I was standing near it. The equipment my uncle owned was very old and prone to break down often. My cousin told me that the cable we used to raise the houses was 70 years old. He quit because he was afraid of getting killed. I enjoyed working with my uncle and I was proud of him for still working at the age of 76, but the work was so dangerous and the rewards so paltry that after 6 months I decided to stick to selling cars on the internet. I made just enough to pay for my medical care and stay alive. I tried various ideas for websites on the internet to make money, like a website where you design your own bumper sticker or T-shirt. I researched ideas like alternative energy and came up with a scheme to sell wind turbines that the farmers could put at the edges of their crop circles. I also came up with an idea for purchasing a VW beetle manufacturing plant in Mexico and converting the cars to ethanol. I would sell the “corn beetle” on the internet to people who lived in states with large ethanol production like Indiana of Iowa. Living as a human shipwreck had turned me into a Willey Loman type character who was always scheming a new idea to make money. At least my scams were honest ones. I also used the internet for entertainment and political science has always been a fascinating subject to me. I was drawn to websites run by the Tamil Tigers and the Chechen Rebels, both which I considered legitimate resistance movements. I was always rooting for the underdog. This would later come back to haunt me. Bill had been bedridden in the rest home for nearly two years when he passed away from influenza that took several other patients. His brother had passed away a few days earlier and it was as if they left this life together. It seemed to me that human beings are tied together in some less than visible way and that when his last brother died he too was called away. I was bitter that he had not gotten a flu shot and for a time it affected my attitude about life but I eventually realized that he would not want that. I had met a girl two years before who understood what I was going through. She worked at a health food store in Lubbock and liked to talk with me when I came in to buy the vitamins my osteopath recommended. Her health was not good she explained because when her mother was pregnant with her she had worked in a paint factory. She had struggled much of her young life with what other people take for granted. I gave her a copy of my book of poetry and it peaked her curiosity about me. We became fond of each other and met often but she was in a relationship. When she and her partner moved to China to teach English I corresponded with her and sent her food stuffs and books that she requested. Being a human shipwreck has a certain peculiar psychology where one is forced to dream about the future in place of the awful present. I had maps on the wall of an epic journey I would one day. I planned on flying to Europe and then take a train across the entire continent of Asia, ending in Vietnam. This day dreaming is a way of holding on to something intangible that might someday come true when nothing else is working out in life. The girl was one more intangible dream. One day I would make her my own. The Bosnian War was in full swing and when the US air force blew up the Chinese embassy in Belgrade the abstract political repercussions became very real. My friends in China had just returned from a boat tour down the Yangtze River before the Three Gorges Damn flooded the most scenic landscape in China. When they got home to the university in Hunan province there were mass demonstrations against the US government. They were forced to cut their stay in China short and return home. The experience of being run out of China and extorted of much of their money was one that left her embittered. I was very indebted to her for her advice on how to maintain my health over the past two years and I was very fond of her. She had given me something to hold onto and when she returned to the US my dream of a relationship finally came to fruition. She gave me what had been lacking in my life for quite some time and I felt that she had kept me alive. It lasted until I had a relapse and didn’t communicate for several weeks. I couldn’t always afford the treatments I had been getting and sometimes I strayed from the diet. She imagined that I had found someone else and we broke off our relationship but remained friends.
While she was in China I went back to the mountains for a couple of days to get out of that depressing little town.
Later I would come to feel that to my mind I was walking in the footsteps of a thousand generations.
I wish to thank all the people who have aided me in this long journey, to my friends and family and to the targeted individuals who have suffered more than anyone will ever know. May we heal each other and in the process heal the earth.
Marshall Gregory Thomas