WARNING: The following contains graphic sex and and drug use, as well as romantic love (which may not be suitable for some Buddhists).
How shall I tell it?
Detached from appearances, unmoved, immediate and true
All things are like a dream, a phantom, a shadow,
A bubble in a stream,
Or a flash of lightening
Although I take a guilty, almost voyeuristic pleasure in reading memoirs, I’m somewhat ambivalent in regard to the writing of one. I most admire the great romantic writers of the past who could create an array of fictional characters, bringing them to life and getting inside their heads — even those of the opposite sex. By comparison a memoir seems vain and self-involved.
Nonetheless, I feel compelled to write of certain events and my story would lose its impact if cloaked in the guise of fiction, even if my modest talents were up to such an undertaking,
Instead, I will write as if I were sitting comfortably, reminiscing with an old friend, perhaps over a few bottles of ale and a pipe load of good bud. I have, in fact, been known to hold forth on such occasions, weaving together philosophical observations and short tales from my life as I’m reminded of some incident, individual, or idea which has stuck with me.
It is my hope that you will find something entertaining, perhaps even instructive, in these ramblings.
FROM THIS VALLEY
Jane and Kermit both grew up on small farms in southeast North Dakota where the Cheyenne River meanders across the prairie and joins the Red River as it flows north to Canada.
Jane’s parents were immigrants who came with the wave of Norwegians who settled on the vast farmlands of North Dakota and Minnesota at the turn of the century. As the most recent arrivals, Norwegians were looked down on and Kermit would never tire of teasing Jane with “Norwegian jokes.”
Jane’s father, Julius or “J.O.,” was the offspring of the future king of Sweden and a Norwegian servant girl on an estate that the young prince visited in Norway. This was the cause of some notoriety in that area of Norway and J.O. immigrated to America at the first opportunity, apparently to escape the embarrassment this caused him.
Legend has it he could play by ear, any musical instrument he set his hand to. He was a plump, jovial fellow, who plied the squeeze-box accordion with Polka bands and was fond of drinking the home-brewed beer for which he was also noted.
However, J.O. was ill-suited to farming and “lost the farm” more than once. Jane never got over the dirt-poor poverty of her childhood and was pinching pennies and refusing to spend money on herself, long after she was comfortable financially.
Kermit’s father William and his wife Mary, built a small two story house on a homestead in what was known as the “sand-hills” — marginal land that has since gone back to native prairie grasses. It’s said that you could take a length of pipe and pound it several feet into the ground just about anywhere in the sand hills and heavily flavored artesian water would flow out of it.
On a recent visit to the old homestead, water was still cascading vigorously out of a tall pipe beside a rundown corral. All that was left of the house, which had eventually burned to the ground, was a low concrete foundation.
Long after they had moved on, William would sometimes drive out there for a drink of that water. When he died suddenly of a massive heart attack in his late eighties his body was found nearby.
Ten children were born and grew up in that little house in the sand hills, eight boys and two girls, sleeping two or three to a bed in tiny upstairs bedrooms. The family lived off the land for the most part, with pigs, chickens and other livestock, along with vegetables and grains. But it was a hard life. Kermit, who was the youngest, said that as soon he could walk he was given chores to do on the farm.
Life got even harder with the great depression, when drought and dust storms blew away much of the thin layer of topsoil.
The family made extra money holding dances in a large barn they’d built. Lean times brought people together and dances with live music were everywhere. As a young boy, Kermit sold home-cured ham sandwiches for a nickle at their shindigs, along with “malt” that was mixed with “white lightening” bootleg liquor outside by the watering trough, where muddy fist fights occasionally erupted.
Slender and muscular, Kermit was nicknamed “Curly,” for his luxuriant black hair — which, like his brothers before him, receded back to his ears by his early twenties. Determined to get out of the sand hills, he worked hard in school, even when he had to walk several miles through snow to get there. He was finally able to go off to the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, where he financed his undergraduate education working with the Sioux on a reservation nearby — an experience that solidified his decision to major in Social Welfare.
Jane also excelled in school and longed to pursue a higher education, but she was practical, as well as competent and efficient, so she just took courses at a business college before getting a job as a secretary in Fargo. She was very shy and quite skinny. Like her sister and two brothers, she had hair so blond it was almost white.
Jane and Kermit met at a dance hall in Fargo, during one of those dances that were popular back then, where the men and women move in opposite directions until the music stops and whoever is in front of you becomes your partner. The music stopped and there they were, facing one another for the first time.
Over five decades later they celebrated their golden 50th wedding anniversary at an annual family reunion in North Dakota. In front of a large crowd of relations, Kermit stepped up to the microphone and in a voice hoarse with emotion, told how he was getting ready to be shipped to Europe with the Army when he heard Rosemary Clooney on the radio singing, “I don’t want to walk without you.” He decided then and there that he didn’t want to walk without Jane. He proposed and they were married in an Army chapel. He said he never looked back or regretted walking all that way with her and he gazed across at Jane with such love that just about everyone at the reunion, even his old bachelor brother Orin, was moved to tears.
In their wedding photos they are both glowing with youth and vitality — Kermit, handsome in his uniform, and Jane, slender and beautiful. Kermit had to report for duty the next day and he said they thought, “One night without birth control shouldn’t matter.”
Nine months later I was born.
My mother and I spent the war years with her parents in North Dakota while my father served in France, where he wrote us what was to become a suitcase full of letters. He was a clerk in a Headquarters Company and one of his jobs was tallying the horrific causalities during the Battle of the Bulge — an experience that contributed to his later anti-war sentiments.
As the first born, I was lavished with love and affection. Not only my grandparents, but numerous other relatives who lived nearby, all doted on me.
I was especially fond of my Norwegian grandmother. She was actually a Fin, probably part Saami or “Laplander,” from an area of Norway where many immigrants from Finland had settled. In her later years, she reminded me of an Oglala Sioux, with a beautiful long nose, deeply lined face, slightly Asiatic features, and a long-suffering, stoic, but noble bearing. I remember, as a youngster, lying in her bed, which I shared when we visited, and watching her in a long white nightgown, slowly unfold the bun from her head and carefully comb out her dark hair that reached almost to her knees.
My mother said I was an unusually happy child who rarely cried, even as an infant. Once, when the two of us were traveling on a train full of American troops, the soldiers lifted me up and passed me over their heads from one end of the train to the other, while I squealed with delight.
After my father returned from the war, he went back to school, eventually graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors and a doctoral degree in Social Welfare. He was soon recruited to teach at the University of California in Berkeley.
As we drove west across the country to California in our brand new, dark green ’47 Plymouth sedan, whose round shape reminded me of a giant turtle, he sang old standards like the “Tennessee Waltz” in a pleasant baritone, while my new little brother, Paul, slept on my mother’s lap and I lay in the sun on the shelf behind the back seat watching the clouds go past.
My parents bought a small house in the rolling, oak tree studded hills overlooking Walnut Creek, which was still just a little village. Facing us across the town below was the majestic presence of Mount Diablo, which was known as “Spirit Mountain” by the Native Americans who had once inhabited the area.
It was wonderful place to grow up, with a lovely tree-lined creek that wound through the town, providing refuge for wood ducks, red-legged frogs and other wildlife. However, in what was my first bitter taste of environmental degradation, by the time I was in high school the Army Corps of Engineers had turned the creek into a lifeless concrete ditch, after it had the temerity to flood one year and inundate some of the downtown with a few inches of water.
While my father commuted to U.C Berkeley, my mom stayed home, keeping the house spotless and catering to his culinary tastes, with delicious home-baked desserts at every meal. She also had to contend with us boys, of which there were now three, since my youngest brother Eric had recently arrived. It was not easy for her. I was a mischievous boy and endlessly inventive when it came to getting into trouble.
After I’d gone off to college, they moved to a lovely old house in North Berkeley where Kermit could walk to campus. Their later years, after he retired, were some of their happiest. They took trips around the country and stayed in B&Bs. Both of them were prodigious readers and they spent a great deal of time reading together on the couch. They got along better than ever, laughing and joking like a couple of newlyweds.
Although my mom had once been high-strung, frequently threatening to have a nervous breakdown if I didn’t change my ways when I was a teenager, in her later years she was as mellow as can be, smiling and laughing at Kermit as if he were a genuine cut-up. “He’s such a dare-devil,” she said, referring, I suspect, to his habit of occasionally climbing up on the steep roof of their two-story Berkeley home to inspect the ceramic roof tiles and perhaps admire the view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance.
Not long after their 60th wedding anniversary Jane had a series of small strokes. At first she didn’t seem to suffer any permanent damage, but very gradually over the next few years, her mind and then her body began to fail. Eventually she could no longer be trusted to cook meals, a situation that struck at the very basis of her identity as a wife and mother.
My dad doted on her all the more, looking after her with a “Janie would you like some of this,” and “Janie can I help you with that.” He confided to me that if she died before him he didn’t want to go on living himself.
Finally she came to require full time care. It was suggested that she be put into a nursing home so that Kermit could enjoy his final years. He refused repeatedly, saying, “She would be lonely there.”
Fortunately she had inherited some money from one of her brothers. With that they were able to hire someone to come in daily and help with her basic needs. Although he worked full time, my brother Eric, who lived downstairs, was devoted to taking care of both of them, patiently spoon-feeding his mother every evening after work, before eating his own meal.
As she gradually declined, and could barely speak or sit up, Jane was put on Hospice Care, for those who have only six months or less to live. But somehow she hung on. In one of her occasional moments of clarity she said, with tears in her eyes, “I didn’t know this would be so hard.”
When she hadn’t died after six months Hospice gave her a two month extension. But still she didn’t die, so she was taken off Hospice.
Half seriously, we started to say, “Maybe she’s waiting for Kermit.”
After another year had passed, Kermit suffered a minor heart attack in the middle of the night. He didn’t wake up Eric, and resisted going to the hospital the next day.
I drove down to see him in the hospital. He had refused to let the doctors do anything other than the most basic tests. I encouraged him to do more, pointing out that he was still sharp mentally and not in any pain, but he said, “It’s been a good run, but now I’m ready to go.”
He had often said that too much health care money was devoted to keeping old people alive a few more weeks, while many poor families went without adequate medical care for their kids. He had dedicated himself to improving the lot of disadvantaged children, both as a professor testifying before congressional committees and in his free time as a board member on nonprofit charities dedicated to child welfare.
Driving him home afterwards I asked him if he wasn’t afraid of death. “No,” he said, “The other night as I lay in bed, knowing I was having a heart attack, I shook hands with death. I made friends with it.”
When she was told that he was in the hospital, Jane blurted out, “I’m just wild about that guy.”
After he returned home Kermit tried to continue the routine they had established. Every afternoon, when Jane wasn’t napping, he would lean her up against him on the couch with his arm around her. Sometimes, when she would whimper, he’d sooth her by singing, in a voice cracking with age, the words from the old song.
“Come and sit by my side if you love me,
Do not hasten to bid me adieu,
But remember the Red River Valley
And the cowboy who loved you so true.”
Jane was put on Hospice once again. She had lost almost half her body-weight, but before she stopped eating entirely she had a burst of clarity. For a few days she could respond clearly to questions and seemed to know what was going on. Sitting on the couch with her, Kermit was saying how he would probably outlive her, when she suddenly said in a clear voice, “Don’t count on it buster.”
Kermit had another small heart attack the night before his 94th birthday, and then another a few days later. After the last one he adamantly refused any more trips to the hospital. Weakened and barely able to walk, he was put on Hospice as well.
I came down from my home on the North Coast to spend time with them and take some of the burden off my brother Eric. I recalled how my mom had said years earlier, “I suppose you’ll be there when we die” — like she wasn’t thrilled by the prospect.
When I arrived she had stopped eating and drinking altogether and although she continued to breathe, she appeared to have left her body completely.
The eighteenth of June, Eric’s birthday, was unusually hectic. Besides the caregiver, I was there while Eric was at work. The phone seemed to ring every fifteen minutes, and Hospice workers were in and out — for interviews, to bathe Jane, and to help in any way they could. They said this was the first time they’d had two people together on Hospice.
We had just gotten my dad up and into his favorite chair in the living room so his bed could be made, when my mother, always a private person, slipped away, dying shortly before noon while no one else was in the room.
I went back and told him, “Mom just died.”
“Oh my,” he said, lowering his head. A few moments later he murmured, “Well, now I can go.”
My mom had died in a hospital bed we’d set up for her in the extra bedroom, with a twin bed beside it for my father. Later that night Eric and I put him to bed in their old bedroom, in the double bed they’d shared for decades.
I curled up on the couch in the living room. For some reason, I woke up around midnight and went in to check on him.
Lying on his left side facing the window, he had died quietly in his sleep.
The lady who came in to clean house for them said afterwards that the last time she was there, “Mr. Kermit” had climbed onto the bed with “Miss Jane” and was holding her.
When my mom died, while we waited for the men from the mortuary to arrive and take her off to be cremated, I sat on the floor and meditated with her body, which lay on the bed nearby. I thought of how I had once resided in that very body myself and what a deep connection I had with her as a result.
Suddenly, as is said to often happen when approaching death oneself, her life flashed before me, like a vapor trail left behind by a comet. She had suffered quite a bit in her final years and it was almost a relief that she had finally been able to die.
Later that night I also sat crosslegged on the floor waiting for them to come and take my father’s body. A street lamp shining through a lace curtain cast a golden light across the bed where he lay. I bowed again and again to him, thanking him for all he had done for me.
My father was the only person I’d known who was able to love unconditionally, not just his immediate family, but everyone. I’ve encountered famous Zen masters, gurus and other religious figures, but although he didn’t meditate or practice any spiritual discipline, he was still the most evolved human being I’ve known, almost entirely without pride or egotism, someone who listened to others and rarely talked about himself. In short, a saint.
Of course as a teenager I found my dad somewhat embarrassing, with his skinny, nervous frame clothed in an outfit he invariably wore when at home — old faded flannel shirts and the kind of cheap shiny work slacks that janitors wear. His head was almost entirely lacking in hair except for some peeking out of his nostrils and in and around his ears and the back of his head. Now that I’ve lost some hair and gained some in those other areas myself, my appreciation of him has only deepened.
I once encountered a former student of my father’s at a party, who said she’d always wanted to meet one of his children.
“What for?,” I asked.
“Because his ideas about child rearing are so far out, so liberal, I wanted to see how one of his kids turned out.” I think she was disappointed to find I was pretty normal, even housebroken.
I hadn’t thought about it before then, but he really was an unusual parent. He was always supportive, even when my choices were not what he might have preferred. I can’t remember him ever criticizing me. He was there if I needed him, without demanding that I be anything other than who I was.
He never raised his hand against me. He had his own, more subtle, methods.
When I was thirteen or fourteen I started climbing out my bedroom window in the middle of the night. I waited until my parents had been in bed for awhile and then, after arranging my bedding to make it appear I was under the covers asleep, I unlatched the window and slipped quietly out into the night, to creep down the hill in the darkness and throw pebbles at the window of my true love that summer, an overdeveloped young brunette from Texas.
Together we climbed the fence at a nearby community swimming pool, stripped off our clothes and dove into the darkened pool, the water warm in the cool evening air. Chasing one other around, giggling and clutching, making out and playing with each other, I ejaculated into the water, only to worry later that perhaps some sperm had managed to swim into her and get her pregnant.
Other nights I’d meet up with buddies who lived in the neighborhood. Walking the hilly streets under a pale moon was a great adventure. Whenever the lights of a car loomed in the distance we’d shout, “ditch!” and dive into the dark bushes beside the road until the coast was clear.
One fateful summer evening, after one of my nights out, I returned home in the wee hours of the morning and crept around the back of the house to slide my window open and return to my bed.
The window was locked from the inside!
I was thunderstruck, absolutely devastated. I stumbled around the house in a panic, trying to figure out a way to get back in unnoticed. Faced with having to go to the front door, I thought perhaps it might be easier to just run away from home right then and there and become a hobo or something.
After some time, I braced myself and knocked timidly on the front door. After an eternity, my father finally opened the door in his bathrobe. “Where you been?”
“Nowhere,” I replied, slinking off to my room. He never mentioned it again, but that was the last time I ever snuck out at night.
Whenever my father would find contraband I’d hidden, alcohol or sex magazines, he wouldn’t say anything, he’d just take them out of their hiding place and put them nearby in plain sight. When I’d see them and realize I’d been discovered, the blood would drain right out of my head and I’d break into a sweat. My own guilt was the worst punishment imaginable.
My mother, using my father’s own psychology on him, suggested my rebelliousness as a teenager was an acting out of his own feelings towards the establishment. I liked that theory, since it added some credibility to my own general dislike of authority. In fact at the dinner table he did frequently rail against corporations and Republicans, at racism and nationalism — a habit I also adopted as an adult.,
When I started experimenting with psychoactive substances in the sixties he made it clear he didn’t approve. He said that life was interesting enough on its own, without having to resort to drugs. However, he didn’t condemn me for taking them. He gave reasoned arguments against them, most of which later turned out to be accurate.
When I enthusiastically described how LSD opened the mind up to a vast area of experience of which we are normally unaware, he said that there were good reasons for such boundaries, that without limitations the individual self would get lost and life would be chaotic and meaningless — an assessment which was particularly prescient.
He was more tolerant of my enthusiasm for Eastern religious practices, even when I later became something of a fanatic. Driving him home from the hospital after he’d had a heart attack, I said I’d concluded that the ultimate meaning of life had to be personally experienced, it could never be grasped intellectually or put into words — if it could be, there’d be no possibility of salvation in it. He just sighed and said, “I suppose so.”
At one point, after my mother had started to decline, I told him of the Zen masters I’d read about who knew when they were going to die ahead of time and would get their affairs in order, gather their disciples together for final instruction, compose a death poem, and then get into the full lotus and pass away peacefully. He said that when he worked with the Lakota Sioux as a young social worker in North Dakota, he heard stories of some of them who just lay down and quickly died when they were forced onto the reservation.
I realized my father had started preparing for death long beforehand. He’d cleared the house and storage areas of any extra accumulated stuff that wasn’t completely necessary.
Shortly before he died I took him shopping for a pair of pants to replace the one’s he’d been wearing continually. He was adorable shuffling through the department store, wisps of white hair curling down from under the old floppy hat he favored. Back in the car he gazed at the folded trousers we’d just purchased and remarked wistfully, “My last pair of pants.”
When Eric came in and told me that the men from the mortuary had arrived, I got up and walked out of the room and through the house. My nephew Kevin was sitting in a chair by the dining room table looking out towards the bay. As the first grandchild he had been especially close to his grandpa. When I walked into the room he sobbed and burst into tears.
At a very early age, the image of the slender, willowy girl with long black hair was already fixed half-consciously in my mind, like a haunting memory from some previous existence. Even as a young child I seemed to be searching for her, as if I instinctively knew I would find her somewhere in this life.
At an age when most boys showed little interest in girls, I periodically fell madly, obsessively in love. My dream girl always had long, skinny (often dirty) brown legs and dark eyes that danced with mischief and allure. The sight of little, hairless labia enclosing a mysterious slit, that I was occasionally privileged to glimpse through the rumpled leg of a pair of summer shorts, sent me into an ecstasy of almost spiritual bliss.
My intentions, (at least until puberty) were always high-minded. I showered one hapless little brunette beauty with valentines and gifts, even asking for her hand in marriage with a plastic ring from the dime store.
I soon discovered the power of such focused amorous intent. When I fixed my attention on a particular version of my ideal, around the schoolyard or in the neighborhood, circumstances invariably drew us together like magnets. Without a word being spoken we would find ourselves running together down a dark deserted school corridor or dashing out of a gathering into a starry night. Suddenly alone together, as if by silent assent we’d embrace like long lost lovers, our young lips coming together in that first incredible discovery of shared rapture.
The vision of the dark-haired girl was eventually forgotten in the confusion of adolescence when, in spite of my earlier precociousness, I was overcome with shyness around the opposite sex.
Not until I was eighteen would she surface again — this time in a dream.
I dreamt I was riding a bicycle along a country lane lit by golden early morning light. Gliding effortlessly I seemed at times to float blissfully above the bicycle, almost as if I were flying.
The bicycle slowed as I came alongside a lush hedge of flowers and vines enclosing a garden gate. A slender girl about the same age as myself appeared behind the gate. As her dark eyes looked up from beneath lowered lashes a wave of intense longing and recognition welled up from deep within me.
The next thing I knew the bicycle was moving again, slightly faster this time, the country lane widening into city streets lined with gray faceless buildings. A faint but ominous groaning of human voices could be heard, growing gradually louder.
Rounding a corner I came upon the source of the disquieting sound. A small parade was marching up the street towards me, holding aloof a huge photograph, followed by several figures bent under the weight of a dark coffin. As they came closer I realized the photograph they carried was a portrait of the girl I’d seen at the garden gate.
Overcome with a leaden feeling of despair and sadness I turned the bike down a side street and peddled furiously away. The street became narrower and steeper as I peddled faster and faster, until I was hurling over rough wet cobblestones between abandoned buildings that loomed on either side of the dark narrow passage. Suddenly something small and white, an infant, appeared directly in the path of the bicycle. I yanked the handlebars to avoid hitting it and careened out of control, tumbling off into the darkness. I awoke with a start.
The dream so impressed me that I wrote it down and turned it in for a creative writing class I happened to be taking at the time. When it was returned with an “A” I filed it away with other writings and sketches and soon forgot about it.
Like a lot of teenagers, I went though a dark period — or so it must have seemed to my mother. My early attempts at oil painting, of postcard perfect harbors and country roads, quickly gave way to large expressionistic works of agonized figures, executed with thick, slashing, impasto. I even attempted to write poetry, with somewhat less success, but with the same images of strange figures, often falling or sinking into a nameless abyss.
I had discovered blues music and I stayed awake late into the night lying on my bed listening to the rhythmic wailing and moaning of love lost and hopes betrayed, broadcast over KDIA from the black ghetto in nearby Oakland. I was distressed to live in such comfortable circumstances and was sure that no great art could ever come out of middle-class white America.
My social life consisted primarily of hanging out at the pool hall downtown and binge-drinking on weekends. Fortunately we had moved into a new house just up the hill and I now had a bedroom downstairs with a separate back entrance so I could stagger in drunk at all hours without waking anyone. After getting into bed I’d frequently get the tailspins, like a plane going down in flames, falling back into dark space with a wonderful feeling of abandon and letting go — which unfortunately was usually followed by the urge to puke.
No matter how far down the toilet I stuck my head my mother could always smell vomit the next day, so instead I’d lurch out the back door, across the damp lawn, and hurl barf over the embankment into the bushes below.
One night, after bending over with a violent bout of the dry heaves, I awoke with the morning sunshine beaming down on me and the sound of the neighbors puttering around in their yard.
I was lying sprawled at the edge of the lawn in my white jockey underpants.
I jumped up and scurried back inside, wondering if my father might have already come to the big window above, looked down, and perhaps in disbelief called out, “Jane, isn’t that Stephen down their sleeping on the grass in his underpants?” If so, he probably thought it served me right, and left it at that.
It’s a good thing drugs were not readily available in the 1950’s or I might never have made it to adulthood. I seemed to be seeking some kind of oblivion, or at least an altered state.
What must have finally forced my mother to call upon the church to attempt a rescue was my choice of reading matter. Not just existentialism and Gnosticism, but Vedanta and Buddhism, Zen and Sikhism, as well as the likes of Jack Kerouac and Bertrand Russell.
She informed me one day that she’d asked Pastor Toleffson to come by and have a talk with me. I didn’t protest. In fact I’d been having conversations with the good Pastor in my head for some time and I welcomed the opportunity to air some of my concerns about the direction of contemporary Christianity.
I’d always liked Pastor Tollefson. He was a stout Scandinavian who radiated kindness and humility and was genuinely sincere in his beliefs. I think I was probably one of the few people who actually listened to his sermons without falling asleep. I found him thoughtful and at times even inspirational, in spite of my own heretical tendencies.
What I hated about going to church, besides having to get up at such an ungodly hour on Sunday morning, was the hard wooden benches the congregation was forced to sit on for what seemed like an eternity. Ironically it wouldn’t be long before I was getting up even earlier to voluntarily sit erect, with legs painfully crossed, in the pursuit of religious awakening.
My mother had cajoled and coaxed me out of bed every Sunday for years with the promise that when I finally went through the ceremony of “Confirmation” at fifteen I’d be a full fledged adult member of the church and could make up my own mind if I wanted to continue going or not. Much to her disappointment, except for the annual candlelight service every Christmas, I stopped attending church regularly right after confirmation.
When Pastor Toleffson came down the stairs to my room I was at my easel working on a large oil painting executed in bold jagged shapes. He hadn’t seen me for some time and looked surprised at how much I’d matured. Although still slender and fresh faced in spite of a faint hint of early whiskers, I was now a tall young man with small but distinct biceps bulging from out of a ragged, paint stained tee-shirt. My dark blond hair was longer, combed back on the sides, with a loose wave hanging over my forehead in front. The room smelled of turpentine and cigarette smoke, a combination that must have struck the pastor as decidedly dangerous.
“I haven‘t seen you lately, what have you been up to?” he asked.
“Huh, I’ve been reading a lot about other religions — Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism,” I replied, “It looks like they all lead to the same place.”
“There is only one way to find God, and that is through our Lord Jesus Christ,” he said firmly.
I hated it when they made that claim, which seemed like a veiled threat. Either get on-board or suffer an eternity in Hell. It was hard to respond to such confident certainty.
“What are you painting?” the Pastor asked, changing the subject.
“Its called The Fall.”
“Hmm,” he said squinting at the jagged shapes and raw colors that formed a large figure falling backwards and downwards across the canvass, “Nice colors.”
He left without saying much more. He probably figured he’d done enough to satisfy my mother and that it was fruitless to waste any more time trying to bring the likes of me back into the fold.
I think I had been something of a thorn in his side during Confirmation Class, the required period of bible study preparatory to becoming a full fledged member of the Lutheran Church. Parents naturally want their children to share their spiritual beliefs, and my mother was no exception. Following the example of my father, I went along with it, intending to do the bare minimum necessary.
But once I started reading the new testament I couldn’t help getting involved.
At one point when the Pastor was going on about how Jesus had “died for our sins,” and what an immense sacrifice that was, I blurted out an objection, “Getting hung on a cross must have been a painful way to die, but people die painful deaths everyday. Jesus got to go right back up to heaven. Where’s the sacrifice in that? If he had just died and disappeared, or worse, gone to hell, now THAT would have been a sacrifice.”
“He was the Son of God,” the pastor exclaimed, “He came so that we may have everlasting life.”
I couldn’t help but be moved by Pastor Tollefson’s sincere religious feeling. It was like tasting a fine wine. But it was his own personal emotion that I responded to — not the story that triggered it. No matter how wonderful and heroic that story, and the dogma that surrounded it, I felt something was missing. Although I was entranced and inspired by the words of Jesus I suspected his story had been added to after his death in order to turn him into something other than a mere mortal, which to my mind actually lessened his significance. The notion that salvation was found through somebody else, and furthermore that it was something that was experienced only after death, struck me as a chancy proposition.
That hadn’t stopped me from having visions of Jesus. Not major ones, just quick sightings out of the corner of my mind. I’d see him sitting on a stone wall or at a rough, wooden table in a crowded inn — a charismatic figure who seemed to exist in an exalted state of indescribable bliss that I was somehow able to share for a brief moment.
I should say a few words about “visions” because they also figure in later parts of my story. In those days a vision was not something I could just decide to have anytime I felt the urge. They were spontaneous unplanned events that swept me up and out of my usual narrative, while still somehow managing to fit seamlessly into the normal course of life.
Such experiences were internal and accompanied by a feeling that was strangely visual and can only be described as ecstatic or blissful. They had a timeless quality, although they were usually brief.
Some of my visions could be ascribed to an overactive imagination, triggered by something concrete, such as my exposure to Christianity. However, at other times they were more subtle and harder to attribute. They might involve real people whom I didn’t even know. I’d be walking through the neighborhood on my paper route and I’d suddenly find myself, for a brief moment, in one of the homes nearby looking out through another person’s eyes.
The most provocative vision, which recurred several times throughout late childhood and early adolescence, involved a disembodied person or presence, like an “imaginary friend” described by some children. I’d suddenly be drawn, as if pulled by a mysterious voice, to hidden spots under trees beside a tiny stream or across hillsides to protected gullies, where I would spontaneously sit cross-legged on the ground as a “being” appeared to me. Not a physical being, more like a being of light that nonetheless felt like a real person appearing both inside my head and up above in the space in front of me, who would wordlessly guide me to a state that can only be described as meditation — completely present in the moment and the immediate surroundings but at the same time infinitely expanded internally until time and space became meaningless.
Looking back, these experiences seem unremarkable — no words of wisdom, no golden tablets or anything of that sort. Just sitting quietly along with my visionary friend, looking out through my eyes with a clear mind, enveloped in an indescribable feeling of peace and happiness.
Later, when I read about Tibetan Buddhism I was struck by the similarity to the practice of visualizing meditation deities and gurus in the same manner. Was this a memory or visitation from a previous lifetime — or perhaps a glimpse of a future self?
Such experiences were especially frequent and powerful when I was approaching puberty, after which they quickly diminished and finally almost disappeared altogether. It was as if a part of me, a way of seeing and being in the world as a young child, was breaking up and dissolving, and the visions were scattered fragments or brief regressions to that earlier state, which was disappearing under the weight of adolescence and early adulthood.
I felt as if my mind and perception, which had been innocent and open, peaceful and blissful in childhood, was being poured into a funnel and narrowed down to a rigid self-conscious entity, constantly engaged in thinking and worrying.
Where the movement of time had once been wonderfully slow and spacious, now it was speeding up, making the days seem progressively shorter.
I assuaged my adolescent angst by reading voraciously, often into the early morning hours. With a stack of my mom’s cookies and a tall glass of milk, I plowed through classic romantic novels, Jude the Obscure, The Red and the Black, Crime and Punishment, Les Miserables, along with more philosophical works such as Being and Nothingness, Thus Spake Zarathustra, The Upanashads, and many others.
I was especially drawn to books on Eastern Religions, where salvation is seen as something that resides within everyone, without exception. All that was needed I thought, were the proper techniques.
The first time I saw an image of a figure in meditation, a photograph of a stone statue from India sitting in the half lotus with open hands on its lap, I was transfixed — a perfect expression of peaceful grace and equipoise.
THE MONK AND THE PROSTITUTE
“Have you thought about how you’re gonna fulfill your military obligation?” The question came from Dave Pond, a short, freckle-faced kid who lived around the block from us, whom I’d known since we were in the third grade.
“Your military obligation. Everyone’s gotta go — or get drafted into the Army.”
It was 1960 and we were about to graduate from high school. Dave said he was joining the California National Guard. He suggested we both enlist in what was called the “buddy system,” which meant we could go through it together. “Only six months active duty and then a couple of evening meetings every month for a few years. Better than getting drafted for two full years,” he insisted.
I was dubious but since we were buddies I let him talk me into going down to the local armory to see the Recruiting Sargent. The armory, into which I’d never ventured before, was surrounded by pavement and various boxy brown military vehicles and equipment. We entered by a large unmarked metal door. The inside smelled faintly of leather and boot polish.
We crossed an impressive expanse of shiny hardwood floor to a small office, where we met with the Recruiter, a wiry little Sergeant encased in starched olive drab fatigues.
I told him I wasn’t sure yet if I wanted to join or not, that I was also considering going into the Forest Service up in Idaho where my cousin was working. I could get a job there on a fire crew for the summer before I started college in the fall.
“No problem,” said the recruiter cheerfully, “Join the National Guard, start going to meetings with us one night a week. Try it out. If you change your mind you can still go to Idaho. We’re a California Organization so we’ll automatically let you out of the Guard if you move out of state.”
“What the heck,” I said, “I can always get out of it if I don’t like it.”
He insisted on signing us up on the spot. I even felt a little burst of pride when I easily passed the mental and physical tests.
I hated it. The meetings were incredibly boring. When we weren’t standing around waiting for whatever was scheduled next to get organized we were cleaning and polishing the various military equipment scattered about the premises. It was worse than the Boy Scouts, which I’d also quit after a few meetings.
So right after graduation from high school I told the California National Guard I’d decided to move to Idaho to work in the Forest Service. Feeling somewhat sorry for Dave and the other guys, but glad to be leaving, I returned the boots and fatigues they’d issued me and got ready to go to Idaho. I packed a single suitcase with some work clothes, a new pair of steel-toed boots, and several paperbacks by the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche and Albert Camus, weighty for their content if not their size.
Among the books was one that would leave a lasting impression on me — “Thais,” by Anatole France, the story of a beautiful courtesan and a Christian monk from the desert who tries to reform her. She dies and because of her pure heart she ascends directly to heaven, while he goes mad with unsatisfied lust.
After a long bus ride through Oregon and Washington, spent half asleep staring out the window at stunted, closely-spaced trees whizzing by, I was deposited in the tiny town of Avery, not much more than a post office, in the upper panhandle of Idaho. From there I hitched a ride down a dusty gravel road that wound alongside the Saint Joe River, flowing wide and quick over round boulders. The air was sparkling clear and fresh with the resinous smell of fir and cedar.
The remote fire station that was to be my home for the next three months was set in a small meadow in the center of a large expanse of wilderness. Our job, when we weren’t putting out the multitude of fires that were ignited every time there was a lightening storm, was to tediously clean up the branches and debris left behind after big logging corporations clear-cut huge swaths of pristine forest. I couldn’t help but wonder who picked up the bill for our work.
In Idaho I would learn a little about two mysterious and potentially dangerous creatures — bears and women, in encounters that were both exciting and aerobic.
First the bears.
I’d barely unpacked my suitcase before I was treated to bear lore and bear stories. Black bears were almost as common as the huge elk that were constantly charging across the road before our trucks.
Grizzly bears, while less prevalent, were far more dangerous. One woodsman from the area was reputed to have had the presence-of-mind to play dead, closing his eyes and going limp when he was surprised by a grizzly. The grizzly just chewed on his arm a little and walked away. That’s what you had to do I was told in utter seriousness. If a grizzly grabbed hold of you just play dead.
You can never outrun a bear on level ground or uphill. For a short distance, about a city block, they can move faster than any human being.
Downhill was another matter. Because their front legs are shorter than their hind legs, going downhill is awkward for them.
But the best thing to do if a bear takes after you is to climb a tree. Not just any tree though. It has to be a skinny tree, one that’s small enough in diameter that the bear can put his arms clear around it. Apparently bears can only get a good enough purchase on larger trees. Plus small trees have branches extending down lower, making them easier for humans to climb.
I would have occasion to test both of those theories in person.
There were twenty young men on the fire crew that summer and we had our own full-time cook who specialized in serving up heaping platters of T-bone steaks. The station brought in whole sides-of-beef to feed us and the remains were thrown onto a dump in the nearby woods, which of course was a favorite haunt of the local bears.
Late one afternoon I had the bright idea to test the “a bear can’t climb any tree it can get its arms around hypotheses.” Armed with a long rope, a couple of us climbed carefully selected trees at the edge of the dump, where a big pile of fresh bones and beef trimmings had been deposited.
Right on schedule, just as the sun was getting low, we heard the crashing and thumping of bears coming down through the underbrush. Apparently bears don’t have any natural predators, so stealth is not a concern for them.
They were not quiet eaters either. Listening and watching them snort and chomp loudly as they devoured the beef scraps, from our perches about twenty feet above them in our little trees, was immensely entertaining.
Finally, I decided the time had come to see if a bear could actually climb a tree it could get its arms around. I tied the end of the rope into a lasso and after several misses I managed to drop it around one of the biggest and blackest of the bears.
I’d tied the other end of the rope to the tree just below me. When the bear tried to move away the whole tree shook and threatened to come down with him. With that he realized he was attached to the tree overhead. He stopped and looked up at me sitting there. With a thunderous roar he attacked the base of the tree and started to climb it.
I began to wonder if I should try to move higher up my skinny little tree or whether it was possible to leap over to another tree.
But sure enough, after climbing several feet the beast faltered and couldn’t go any further. With that he dropped down and proceeded to vent his furry on the rope, shredding it in a matter of moments. With one final roar of indignation the bear rumbled off the way he’d come.
Not long after that adventure, on a sunny day off from work, I took a hike up to a fire lookout tower on a nearby peak. After chatting with the young chap who manned the lookout, whose solitary lifestyle I envied for the opportunities it provided for meditation and reading, I headed back downhill on the narrow switchback path I’d hiked up earlier.
I was walking along the side of a steep slope covered, appropriately, with tall “bear grass” native to that area, when a huge bear stood up, only a few feet uphill from me. It’s height, due partly to the upward slope, looked to be seven or eight feet tall. It gazed directly down at me.
Another caveat might be — never look a bear in the eye. As it silently dropped down towards me I leapt off the trail in the opposite direction, down the steep side of the hill, running like I was falling, my legs spinning to keep up with me.
I heard the bear thundering behind me for a minute or two but it couldn’t keep up. As it turned out, it really is true that bears can’t run fast downhill — but I sure as hell could. Ignoring the switchbacks in the trail I shot straight down the mountain. I didn’t stop running until I’d arrived exhausted back at the Fire Station.
I’d had enough of bears. I was ready for some women.
One weekend several of us firefighters traveled north to Wallace — a wild grubby logging town of dirty brick buildings and smelly barrooms, where prostitution was apparently legal or at least openly tolerated. There were establishments with names like the U & I Rooms and the Come On Inn, with half-naked women beckoning from upstairs windows.
With several drinks under our belts to buck up our courage we picked one of the more respectable establishments (if such a term can even be applied here) and climbed the stairs to a dingy waiting room.
As we sat back, the “girls” paraded into the room one by one for our perusal, wearing only lacy undergarments.
I held out til the last. I never could buy any item without first examining each and every one that was available. Also, I thought that this might be my first time, that technically at least, I was probably still a virgin since I was not really sure if I’d ever actually completed the act in my numerous forays, usually executed half-drunk in parked cars.
I was the only one left in the room when a raven-haired woman in red lace sashayed through the door and held out her hand seductively in my direction.
Somewhat apprehensively I stood up and followed her wiggly behind down a long hallway to a small private apartment. It had a comfortable lived-in look that made me think she must actually reside there.
Quite a bit older than me, she was still attractive, with smooth very white skin and slightly plump thighs and tummy. She carefully filled a basin on a low washstand and told me to undress.
Taking my already erect penis in her hand she gently pulled me towards the washstand where she began to wash it, almost tenderly, with warm, soapy water. With a loud exhalation I ejaculated.
“Is this your first time,” she giggled.
“Yeah,” I admitted, shamefaced.
“Well, we’ll have to give you another shot at it then.” On her bed, engulfed in sweet perfume and soft flesh, I lasted long enough to begin to get a feel for the rhythm of it.
Afterwards, instead of rushing me out for another customer as I’d expected, she lingered with me on the bed for some time and talked. She confided that, yes, she was hooked on heroin, which is why she was in this particular profession, but this was a very clean establishment, with all the girls getting regular medical exams.
Before we parted she reached into a cupboard beside the bed and pulled out a stack of neatly folded tee-shirts. “These were left here,” she said handing them to me, “They’ve all been washed.” I was profoundly touched and wore them proudly after that, even though they reeked of her perfume and some of the other firefighters made unflattering comments.
I would have one more close encounter with a bear, when our entire crew hiked for several arduous hours up a steep ridge to spend five exhausting days fighting a blaze that was over five acres and threatening to engulf the entire area. We worked twenty hour days with only a few hours of sleep sprawled on the fire line.
In the middle of the night I left the still glowing fire, barely contained in our hastily constructed fire break, and walked into the surrounding forest to relieve myself. As I blindly made my way through dense brush and pitch black darkness, I suddenly slammed nose deep into a wall of soft fur — the chest of a large bear standing in my path. I turned and ran, while the bear fled into the darkness going the opposite direction.
When I returned home from Idaho there was a letter waiting for me from the “Department of the Army.” It looked official — and ominous. Was I getting drafted?
I tore it open. Inside were orders to report for active duty.
Reading further I was somewhat relieved to learn I’d been inducted into the Army Reserve for six months active duty rather than the minimum of two years required by the regular Army. That weaselly recruiting Sergeant hadn’t outright lied, he’d just neglected to tell me the whole truth. If I moved out of California to work in Idaho I’d be discharged from the California National Guard all right. What he didn’t mention was that I would automatically be transferred into the United States Army Reserve.
My naivete was embarrassing. Adults in my life up till that point had been scrupulously honest, unlike some kids I knew. Somehow (incredibly) I was under the impression that all adults were truthful.
I crammed as much partying as I could into the few weeks I had left before reporting for duty at Fort Ord, a sprawling Army Base a few hours to the South on the coast near Monterey. When I stepped off the bus at the Fort’s induction center, along with a contingent of other nervous new recruits, we were greeted by a cadre of Drill Sergeants who were apparently violently angry at the very sight of such a slovenly crowd of “cruits.” Shouting and cursing they herded us through a daylong series of stations to be issued a duffel bag full of clothes (between long boring periods of waiting in line) and run through a gauntlet of handheld injection guns for distributing various immunizations. With blood dripping down our arms from injections fired without good skin contact, our hair was unceremoniously mowed to a stubble and we were assigned to various units for basic training.
When the the black Platoon Sergeant from Louisiana greeted us at our barracks he drawled, “You can send your heart on to God, because your ass belongs to me.”
Although I hated the Army, I’ve since joined the ranks of those who think it’s a good thing for young men just starting out in life to be subjected to an intense period of discipline and physical conditioning. When I reported for active duty I was 142 pounds of flaccid flesh. After three months of basic training I emerged with 170 pounds of pure lean muscle on my six foot frame. My neck, once a chicken-like protuberance, came straight up from my shoulders like a tree trunk. I could do push-ups and pull-ups practically indefinitely.
Army food was surprisingly good and long hours with frequent bouts of vigorous exercise stimulated a ravenous appetite. My favorites of chipped beef on toast (“shit on a shingle”), or roast turkey with all the trimmings, were served almost every week. In the mornings there was all the pancakes and scrambled eggs and bacon we could eat.
For someone who’s biological clock was set to sleep in as late as possible, the shock of being abruptly woken up before five every morning by loud insults, forced to quickly dress while still half asleep, meticulously make the bed in an auditorium-sized room full of double bunk-beds, and then be standing at attention for inspection in a matter of minutes, was a radical and bracing change from my previous teenage existence.
Before breakfast we jogged several miles through sand with heavy rifles held up in front of our chests. If anyone fell behind, which a few fatsos inevitably did, two of us had to grab them under the arms and drag them along with us, which didn’t exactly increase their popularity. After a couple weeks of torture and abuse by Drill Sergeants trying in vain to whip them into shape those few stragglers disappeared, to be mercifully discharged as “physically unfit.”
Whenever someone slipped up or made the slightest mistake a Sergeant would yell “gimme ten” — meaning pushups. Looking back, although loath to admit it at the time, I think I developed a taste for rigid discipline and strenuous physical exertion. Pushed to the extreme of mental and physical exhaustion, along with the likely release of stimulative brain chemicals, my usual mind of repetitive discursive thinking occasionally simply gave up and emptied out into the present moment with a sudden indescribable transcendent bliss. I had several deep religious experiences in basic training, which although brief or momentary, I still savor.
Relentlessly marched to classrooms, obstacle courses and shooting ranges from dawn to dusk, we collapsed on our bunks immediately upon the order of “lights out!” If a recruit fell asleep in one of the incredibly boring classes we were forced to endure, a Sergeant would take delight in sneaking up on him and bellowing an insult while slamming down both fists loudly on the desktop — much to the amusement of the rest of us. I soon developed the amazing ability to sleep with my eyes wide open, which I think might have contributed to a tendency later in life to sit up and talk in my sleep with my eyes open.
Besides the shorn hair, recruits wore brand new, baggy, dark olive-green fatigues and floppy Sad Sack caps, all of which stood in stark contrast to the Sergeant’s attire. In those days, before the advent of camouflage fatigues and wide-brimmed hats, Drill Sergeants wore crisp short-billed caps and fatigues bleached and faded to a beautiful silvery-green and so heavily starched that the creases projected in sharp-edged lines down the outside of their arms.
Drill Sergeants were the elite of Fort Ord. Compared to them commissioned officers were slouches who only showed themselves for ceremonial occasions. Our company was headed by “Krebs,” a lean hawk-nosed Master Sergeant who was universally feared and respected. Although he must have been over forty he could do pushups using only one arm for longer than most of us could with both arms.
The practiced verbal abuse was delivered with dark humor and perfect timing. Constant regimentation, standing at attention in straight lines, mass calisthenics and marching in step to loud cadence counting, was all designed to diminish our individual humanity in the service of molding us into a homogeneous fighting force of platoons and battalions that could be mobilized and moved into action by higher-ups, like any other machinery of war.
The only concession to individuality was a white patch sewn on the right chest with a last name in black letters. Thus everyone was referred to by their surname. Friendships were formed haphazardly by who happened to be standing next to you in line or sleeping in the bunk below. My closest friend in basic, who I knew only as “Gardner,” was a big strapping hillbilly from Kentucky. He had impulsively enlisted for three years in the Army and Green Beret training in response to his girlfriend breaking up with him. I don’t know if she ever regretted her decision, but he certainly did — at least while I knew him.
Near the end of basic came the most rigorous class of all — Prisoner-of-War Training. After some preliminary maneuvers our entire company was “captured” and marched into a stockade with armed guards posted along its high walls. We were forced to stand perfectly still at attention in the hot sun for hours to be taunted by the “enemy” — in the person of a charismatic black sergeant who was famous throughout Fort Ord for his karate chops. Whenever anyone wavered or protested the verbal abuse, his hand flew out and hit the side of their neck with a loud “thwack,” at which point they collapsed and lay on the ground twitching spasmodically. That was the signal for the guards along the walls to fire their weapons into the air and drag the unconscious prisoner away by his feet.
Finally we were allowed to “escape” and rendezvous back at a small auditorium where we sat facing a wide glass wall on a stage. When the lights were turned out and a light went on behind the glass, we realized it was a two-way mirror. In the narrow room on the other side of the glass wall, which the people inside apparently couldn’t see out of but was lit up like a theater for us, was a large chair like those in a barber shop, with wrist clamps on either arm and dangling wires and dials on the wall behind.
One by one the prisoners who had been knocked out and dragged from the stockade were brought in for interrogation. We’d been advised beforehand that if we were captured to only give out our name, rank and serial number and not to reveal any other information, such as what company or battalion we belonged to.
As we all watched, wires were attached to each prisoner in turn as they were sat in the chair. When they refused to answer a question put to them by the interrogator a strong jolt of electricity was administered. It didn’t take long to get them to give in and reveal whatever information the enemy wanted.
Only one prisoner held out — a slender bookish draftee with a masters degree in literature. Quiet and unassuming, he was the last person you’d expect to engage in heroics. They gave him jolt after jolt until his legs shot straight out in front of him, but he refused to answer any of their questions.
Finally they gave up and turned the lights on in the auditorium so he could see the rest of us — as we all stood up applauding and hooting loudly.
It was hard to ignore what the Army was all about. During marksmanship training we aimed at targets in the shape of human silhouettes. With my natural artist’s hand/eye coordination I easily qualified as an expert marksman.
When I was around nine years old, one of my uncles gave me a BB gun. I soon got bored with shooting tin cans and started aiming at birds. I hit a tiny gray and yellow bird (probably a Wilson’s Warbler), which fell from it’s perch in a tree overhead and lay mortally wounded at my feet. As I picked it up, still alive and warm in the palm of my hand, its tiny round eye gazed up me with palpable pain and fear.
Somehow I managed to put the little guy out of his misery, but that look in its eye has never left me. Even now, so many decades later, I still feel deep regret whenever I remember it. I can understand how some veterans are haunted by what they did in combat long after returning home.
On the last day of basic training we were allowed to go the PX for the first time and buy beer. We were told that we had the whole barracks all to ourselves for the next 24 hours and could do whatever we liked to celebrate the completion of that phase of our training. We were no longer “cruits” but bonafide soldiers.
Early in basic the drill sergeants had divided every platoon into four squads of about a dozen men apiece. Then they appointed one of our fellow recruits as the leader of each squad and gave him a temporary slip-on arm band with a corporal’s stripes. I don’t know if it was the result of deliberate selection on the part of the sergeants or just human nature, but the newly minted corporals soon let their newfound power go to their heads.
Taking abuse from genuine drill sergeants with years of experience was one thing, but we bristled when taking it from a fellow recruit, which only drove the “corporals” to greater excesses of verbal bullying and oppressive demands. The drill sergeants did little to rein in the little monsters they’d created — until that final day of basic training.
The evening of our “anything goes” last day of basic I broke out a full canteen of “GI gin” that I’d been saving up for just such an occasion. Fort Ord, with it’s cold dank coastal climate, was a breeding ground for germs. Many of the recruits were coughing up pale green loogies the size of small frogs. Anytime someone went on sick-call, for whatever reason, they were given a bottle or two of codeine cough syrup — which a few of us had collected and emptied into a water canteen.
With several other kindred spirits I was sprawled along a polished hallway floor, leaning against a wall and passing a canteen of GI gin/codeine back and forth and washing it down with beer — when one of the former corporals, bleeding profusely, came screaming down the hall past us. Apparently some of our comrades had exacted retribution for the abuse they’d received at his hands. I’m sure the drill sergeants knew this would happen and perhaps even relished it as a final lesson in military customs.
I hate to admit it now, but as a teenager I was an avid fan of fistfights — although I usually managed to avoid them myself. In high school a couple of guys were like mythical gunslingers in the old west, renowned far and wide for their fearsome ability to dispatch opponents in fights, oftentimes before huge crowds after school.
Somehow I became buddies with one of the most noted brawlers. He wasn’t especially big, size-wise, and quite ordinary in appearance, but Jerry Corso would go crazy in a fight and no one could stand up to him, no matter how big and tough they were. He was particularly incensed by anyone who put on airs and acted “bad.”
One time the two of us were walking in town when a big muscle-bound guy with an elaborate pompadour swaggered past us in a tight tea-shirt, with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in one sleave. Without a word Corso turned around, grabbed him, threw him up against a nearby wall, and pummeled him with a quick flurry of blows that left him sliding down the wall to the pavement.
At the annual Walnut Festival, an eagerly awaited event which featured a big carnival near the Civic Center, the Hells Angels motorcycle gang traditionally made an impressive entrance on Friday night. As they cruised slowly down the street one year, in a long double line of customized Harley “choppers,” arms hanging languidly from high handlebars, revving their engines and looking incredibly bad, Jerry Corso suddenly shot out from a crowd of spectators on the sidewalk and proceeded to kick over motorcycles and riders right and left before disappearing across the other side of the street — leaving Hells Angels and their downed choppers sprawled awkwardly all over the pavement.
As a teenage fight fan I always eagerly awaited the Friday Night Fights on TV. It was the golden age of boxing, with the likes of Archie Moore and Sugar Ray Robinson defending their championships. I even got some boxing gloves of my own and organized matches with neighborhood kids, sometimes getting in the ring myself or at other times acting as referee, announcer and timekeeper. For awhile I trained my younger brother Paul for matches with other kids his age, whom he easily beat with his natural speed and coordination.
After we got out of basic training, and had been assigned to new units for further training, there was more time and freedom to explore Fort Ord during off-duty hours. I soon discovered a completely equipped gymnasium and arena where boxing matches were held every Friday night. Any soldier on the base could train there to fight a few rounds before spectators in a professional looking boxing ring, with their own trainer in the corner and a colorful silken robe to make a proper entrance.
I was initially set on signing up myself, but when I perused the other fighters in my weight class working out, lean muscular black guys with blazing speed and power, I decided I’d do better as a trainer and coach. The heavyweight division looked to be deficient in talent and at six foot four, two hundred and twentyfive pounds, I thought my friend Gardner could be a promising contender. I easily talked him into signing up for a heavyweight bout and proceeded to coach him at the gym on the finer points of the pugilist’s art. I even got him up early in the mornings prior to the bout to run several miles with me.
The night of the fight I was pleased to see that his opponent was a flabby overweight white guy. When Gardner entered the ring and took off his robe an audible gasp went through the crowd. He had shoulders like soccer balls, big bulging biceps, magnificent pecs, and a perfect six-pack of abs.
The fight was only four rounds, but once it got under way it was easy to see that Gardner was not championship material. He was slow and awkward and by the second round he was so winded he could barely stand up straight. But his adversary clearly knew his way around a boxing ring, and despite his flabby physique, had very fast hands.
Gardner was still standing when the referee mercifully stopped the fight with a Technical Knockout (TKO) at about the same time that I was wondering if I should throw a towel into the ring.
The following week I took Gardner to the nearby city of Seaside and treated him to a night on the town to make amends for having persuaded him to get into the ring. After much food and a prodigious amounts of alcohol we stumbled across a seedy tattoo parlor on a back street. “Let’s get tattoos,” I exclaimed.
Inside, before a wall of possible tattoo designs, Gardner settled on a large winged Airborne Special Forces insignia for his right bicep.
As I dizzily tried to choose between a small rose or a dragon for my forearm, the tattoo artist sat Gardner down on a stool near the front window and went to work on his bicep. As the image took shape I moved in for a closer look.
Without pausing to look up or shut off his humming electric needle, the tattooist calmly reached behind his back with his free hand and pulled out a plastic bucket — just as Gardner started to vomit uncontrollably. The rising stench filled my nose and I started to throw up myself before quickly lurching out the door into the fresh night air, where I could safely watch the tattoo being finished through the window.
When Gardner came out, looking pale, but proudly showing off his tattoo, I said there was no way I was going back in there and getting one myself.
The new unit we were assigned to for Advanced Infantry Training (AIT), was remarkably easygoing after the rigors of basic. Our platoon sergeant, a reclusive and gentle soul with a severe stutter, seemed just as reluctant to show up for duty as the rest us. Whenever he was spotted coming towards the barracks looking for “volunteers” for kitchen duty or other similarly unappealing work, everyone dove for cover, squeezing into the tall lockers that lined the walls or sliding under beds. Where basic training had been strict and tightly organized, what followed was so muddled and undisciplined that it was almost fun — unless the prospect of actually going into combat under such circumstances was entertained.
As we stood in formation one morning our sergeant stuttered that he needed two volunteers with “good d,d,driving experience.” Like everyone else in the platoon, I never voluntarily volunteered for anything, but the reference to driving experience was intriguing enough for me to speak up.
Along with Ferdig, the other volunteer who claimed to have driving experience, I found out we would be the designated drivers of the Company’s two jeep-mounted 106 “Recoilless Rifles.”
Deployed to protect the infantry from tanks, the barrel of the top-heavy 106 recoilless cannon ran the whole length of the jeep that it sat uneasily astride. Our crew of four, with me driving, took part in massive “maneuvers” on the rolling hills on the east side of Fort Ord. I was allowed, even required, to drive as fast a possible overland along the steep hillsides while carefully gauging whether the uphill wheels were starting to lift off the ground, lest the top-heavy jeep roll over down the hill.
After I positioned our 106 just below the crest of a hill, the squad leader went to the top and scanned the terrain below for enemy tanks. When he barked “fire mission” I floored the jeep and shot up to the top of the hill, jumped out and positioned myself beside the left front wheel, still holding onto the steering wheel with one hand to be prepared to pull myself back into the idling jeep, while the gunner sited the cannon and the other man in the rear opened the back of the barrel and inserted a huge shell — which made a thunderous blast when we did live firings at targets in the valley below.
We were told we only had about ten seconds to get off a round before the radar on a Russian tank could detect us, so I had to immediately lunge back into the driver’s seat, jam the jeep into reverse with the gas peddle to the floor, and fly blindly backwards down the hill before turning and careening off in another direction.
As drivers, Ferdig and I had unfettered access to the huge pool of jeeps at Fort Ord. We sometimes got jeeps and went joyriding, even driving off-base around Seaside and Monterey.
I hadn’t lied when I said I had driving experience. Growing up in Walnut Creek I’d spent a good deal of time driving various motorized vehicles — starting when I was only twelve with a souped-up “Doodle Bug,” a tiny red motorscooter that could zip along at 35 miles an hour, which seemed really fast only inches above the pavement astride a small seat-cushion and a skimpy tubular frame over a churning five-horse Briggs and Stratton engine and two dolly-sized wheels. I reveled in the surging power at the twist of a wrist as I held onto the handlebars and flew down the road engulfed in the roar of a four-cycle engine. The smell of oil and burning gasoline became intoxicating for me.
Before I was even old enough to get a driver’s license, I bought my first car with money I’d saved from part time jobs — a 1935 Ford five-window coupe with a rumble seat. I had it towed home to my parent’s garage with the intention of getting it overhauled by the time I could legally drive it.
I ended up lovingly taking it completely apart piece by piece, painstakingly cleaning each part in gasoline with my bare hands, and if appropriate, painting the part with colored enamel before re-assembling it. I replaced the old mechanical brakes with newer model hydraulics and smoothed and sanded the body before spraying it with black primer. After pulling the ’35 motor out, I bought a radical, “full load” 1948 Mercury engine block from a hotrodder friend. With the help of various motor manuals I gradually reassembled a complete engine with parts acquired from friends or local wrecking yards. Intent on entering it in drag races I mounted large racing “slicks” on the rear.
By the time my ’35 Ford was “built,” I already had a driver’s license. With some trepidation I finally towed it out of the garage and up to the top of a nearby hill with my father’s station wagon. As I coasted the coupe down the hill I put it into gear and popped the clutch. Vroom! It started right up.
It ran beautifully, but I never got over my nervous surprise at taking it completely apart, rebuilding it, and having it actually run. It struck me as almost miraculous.
I’d only been driving the coupe a short time when someone offered to trade a 1929 Ford, full-fender roadster pickup for it. The roadster was a patchwork of different colors, but I could see its potential.
It was agreed that I could keep the racing slicks off the rear of my ’35. They looked great on the little roadster pickup with its shortened bed and bobbed rear fenders. It already had hydraulic brakes with swing peddles and a ’48 mercury V8 that I outfitted with finned aluminum heads and three Stromberg carburetors (mostly for show, since I only actually hooked up the middle carburetor). I reupholstered the seat and polished up the chrome windshield frame and radiator housing. After going over the body thoroughly I had it painted a deep red. When it was finished I thought it looked good enough to be featured in Hot Rod magazine.
Although my little roadster pickup was not particularly fast, it looked and sounded like it was. The exhaust system could be rerouted around the mufflers into two lengths of three inch sewer pipe. When the plugs were removed from the brass pipes it made a tremendous sound. I reveled in idling slowly out of the the High School parking lot, then flooring it after turning onto the straightaway towards downtown. With the lowest geared rear-end Ford ever made and almost no weight over the them, the racing slicks churned up a cloud of burning rubber reminiscent of dragsters coming off the line.
The late fifties was the golden age of automobiles, with all kinds of manifestations, from soaring tail fins to futuristic, aerodynamic shapes. Certain models, mostly older fords, lent themselves to customizing, The various hot rods and custom cars that were created were nothing short of works of art and there was a very strict, if unspoken, aesthetic. Within certain tasteful perimeters, innovations and creativity was encouraged, but some things, such as lowering the rear only, or raising the whole vehicle up, or plastering the body with stick-ons, was frowned upon.
Building custom cars and hot rods provided ample outlet for my artistic inclinations. I also made a little extra money painting images on dashboards and motorcycle gas tanks, in the flaming eyeball school of art. I even did some “striping” with a special brush used to make thin decorative lines and zigzags around the contours of hoods and trunks.
Walnut Creek was at the regional epicenter of the unique car culture that blossomed in the affluent suburbs of 1950’s America. Every Friday and Saturday night a continuous stream of custom cars, from all of the towns in the surrounding suburbs, cruised slowly, bumper to bumper, up and down Main Street, throaty V-8 engines revving, in a long slow line stretching from Hokies Hamburgers at the north end, through downtown to the High School on the south end and back again.
By the time I left Walnut Creek for College at San Jose, I’d fixed up almost a dozen different cars and two motorcycles.
One of the least notable was a ’52 Ford Fairlane hardtop which I lowered all the way around, outfitted with “spinner” hubcaps, and painted a deep purple, with black and white seat covers. With it’s stock six-cylinder engine, I referred to it dismissively as a “pussy” wagon, that was nonetheless reliable transportation.
One day in the school parking lot, my friend Wharton was trying to get his ’50 Oldsmobile coupe to run right and in a fit of anger offered to trade it straight across for my Fairlane. He’d been building that Olds for years, with the ample resources of his father’s auto supply store. It had been completely gone over, with a loaded ’56 engine, a much sought after LaSalle floor-shift transmission, new chrome inside and out, including chromed windowsills, and a beautiful baby-blue and white tuck-and-roll Naugahyde upholstery interior. All it lacked was a good paint job over it’s faded red primer.
After I’d ascertained that Wharton really wanted to trade his Olds for my humble Fairlane, we exchanged pinkslips. Long afterwards I’d see him, with his girlfriend sitting up close to him, cruising in that purple hardtop.
I soon managed to get the Oldsmobile tuned and running pretty good. But despite a radical camshaft that produced a deep syncopated rumble, the big “full load” engine only had a single four-barrel carburetor and was apparently starved for gas. Serendipitously, a guy in Hokies parking lot, with a set of four staggered two-barrel Stromburg carburetors on his ’56 Olds, offered to trade them for my four-barrel. Even though gas in those days was under 30 cents a gallon, he said it was sucking more gas than his stock engine needed.
What a difference good carburation made! My Olds easily beat a brand new Corvette I raced onto the freeway.
After I’d painted it with several coats of light metallic blue, I mounted new chrome baby moon hubcaps in deep, freshly painted, black reversed rims. With it’s long rounded fenders, and wide front bumper lowered close to the ground, I considered that ’50 olds coupe a masterpiece — and ready to be sold or traded while it was still in perfect shape.
I put an ad in the paper and the first guy who saw it wanted it. He was a rich kid from nearby Danville, and while we sat in his driveway haggling over the price, I noticed an old four-door ’47 Oldsmobile sedan sitting in the walnut orchard nearby. “That’s my grandfather’s old car. He died and we didn’t know what to do with it,” the kid said. “It still runs,” I looked it over and said I’d sell him the coupe for $600 (a lot in those days) if he threw in his grandfather’s old sedan.
As soon as I got the ’47 home I went to work. The car was incredibly long with a tapering “torpedo” back and wide front fenders on either side of a pointed hood. It was covered with a layer of grey walnut sap that came off with rubbing compound, to reveal multiple coatings of deep lacquer. After it was waxed it shown a lustrous black that I could see my face in like a mirror.
When I removed the cheap Sears Roebuck seat covers I was delighted to discover immaculate brown velvet upholstery underneath. The four door model was very rare, and of such length that I could sit in the back seat with legs straight out and barely reach the back of the front seat with my toes.
It had a straight-eight flathead engine, so it was strictly a cruise-mobile. I had all four coil springs heated at a muffler shop until it was lowered evenly all the way around just inches above the ground. With it’s extra long, low, shiny black profile, it looked like Al Capone’s personal ride. Of all the cars I owned that’s the one I most wish I’d kept. Instead, when I left for active army duty I sold it to an artist friend, who had admired it, for $125 . He shortly totaled it on a telephone pole after leaving a party drunk.
My last car before before I went strictly utilitarian was a sports car — a 1953 Austin Healey roadster. It was the first model Austin made, known as “the big Healey,” presumably because of it’s oversized 2660cc long-stroke four cylinder engine with twin carburetors and an early overdrive that was switched on with a toggle on the dashboard. I painted the original white a beautiful canary yellow and dyed the red leather seats a lustrous black. Built low to the ground, it was a joy to drive, with wire wheels, a windshield that folded down for streamlining, and a tight suspension that allowed me to easily whip around a right angle corner at over sixty mph.
When I got out of the army and enrolled at San Jose State, my friend Wharton was already into his second semester there. He invited me to be his roommate, rent free, in a house with three black guys he’d met working part time in the college cafeteria.
It turned out I wasn’t the only one living there rent free. The house was abandoned, or in legal limbo, and apparently no one cared if we moved in and made ourselves at home. It was on the outer edge of fraternity row, but definitely not a typical frat house — more like a classic haunted house, rising up dark and foreboding from a large corner lot covered with straggly trees and overgrown bushes and vegetation. My bright yellow Austin Healey was a striking contrast parked out front of its grim, gothic exterior. Inside, under a high ceiling, faux wooden pillars flanked the long, musty living room, which came furnished with several old, faded, overstuffed easy chairs. Upstairs, bedrooms lined a long hallway that lead to a dingy, but commodious bathroom.
It was a great setup for me. Wharton spent most nights at his girlfriend’s apartment so I had our small bedroom pretty much to myself. Besides the free rent, I could access copious amounts of free food leftover from his work at the college cafeteria, but despite claims that it was virtually untouched, I politely declined much of it.
The kitchen, next to a small dining room, was even more unappetizing, with an old greasy stove and dilapidated, dull yellow cupboards and shelves — and a distinct smell of rodents. Several very large, dusky grey, particularly arrogant rats often made their appearance, looking resentful whenever they were disturbed going about their business from a large hole above the cupboards. Finally, I reluctantly put out some d-con rat poison and they could be heard running loudly around the inside of the ceiling before falling silent and disappearing completely. When I learned that the city had been demanding that the piles of trash in the backyard outside the kitchen be cleaned up, I arranged for garbage service.
The house was often filled with smelly smoke from frying fish, which Newton, one of my new housemates, cooked whole in an oversized metal pan. He’d been living there the longest and had apparently discovered the abandoned house while hunting for bugs in the neglected, overgrown back yard. He was a graduate student in entomology (study of insects), and reputed to be very intelligent and a poet as well. Lean and wiry, with silky black skin, red-rimed eyes and sensitive features, Newton was a foreign exchange student from Jamaica, with a sweet, lilting British accent.
The other two occupants of the house, Bruce and Maurice (better known as “Mo”) were both athletes on partial scholarships. It was my first real exposure to African Americans after growing up in a lily-white suburb without even a Mexican, much less Negros. I was surprised at how different and unique they were. Wharton and I were way more homogeneous, both physically and culturally.
Mo, quiet and unassuming, was a quick, compact running back on the Varsity football team. At a game I attended he made a dramatic eighty yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Although he was one of the stars he was too small to be drafted as a professional. When I gave him a ride to his hometown on my way to visit my folks in Berkeley, I was appalled at the shanty town poverty and squalor of West Oakland where he’d grown up. He said when he graduated he intended to return to teach and coach in the high school there. I could easily see him as a mentor and inspiration to young blacks growing up in that area.
Bruce was a tall, good looking, chocolate colored high hurdler on the track team at San Jose State — a program that would produce several Olympians, most notably Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who stood on the winners’ platform at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico with raised fists to protest treatment of black Americans. While Mo was humble and down to earth, Bruce was a jive-talking hustler from Compton in Los Angeles and a notorious womanizer, even something of a gigolo, who was often dropped at our gloomy manse by an attractive middle-aged blond lady in a sporty Mercedes.
I watched Bruce work out on the high hurdles, probably higher than I could flop over sideways, much less hurdle straight-on at high speed one after another. His sleek, glistening musculature stood out in anatomical relief as he flexed and stretched on the starting blocks, before exploding down the track, springing over the hurdles with incredible ease and grace.
Not long after I’d moved in, Wharton and I decided the old house was an ideal site for one of the raucous, drunken parties that were popular around the campus. We filled a tub with iced beer and Wharton hung his prized collection of plastic beer signs — colorful, three-dimensional electronic wall sculptures with lit-up images of cascading water, bright turning worlds and sweating bottles of cold beer. While Wharton went to fetch his girlfriend I paced the empty house, fussing over last minute arrangements before the hordes of expected partyers arrived. Suddenly a group of young men appeared, who I recognized from a nearby frat house. Before I could say anything, one of them grabbed a beer sign from the wall and headed for the door. I went after him but another guy blindsided me with solid punch to the side of my head, sending me sprawling to the floor.
So much for the party. The next day Wharton went to the frat house to get his beer sign back, accompanied by Bruce, Mo and several other of the few Black guys on campus, including Harry Edwards, the center on the basketball team, who was also known as “Long Head” — not because of his almost seven foot height, but because he was a brilliant, straight A student.
The Frat boys gave up the beer sign without a fight.
Since he was around most evenings, and we shared an introverted artistic nature, it was Newton that I bonded with — usually over bottles of Ripple, a cheap fortified wine popular with winos in the early sixties, which we consumed after settling deep into the voluminous easy chairs that had apparently been in the old house since its earliest days.
Before long our conversations invariably turned to “Marty,” a friend of Wharton’s girlfriend who I’d briefly courted. A plump, bubbly fan of the newly imported Beatles (music group), she was a self-described virgin. But after long hours of making out and concerted dry-humping, to no avail, I concluded that I was not to be the source of her deflowering. Actually, aside from my own all-consuming lust, I was not particularly eager to take on such an awesome responsibility and my lack of commitment must have only reinforced her resolve to resist my heated advances.
After I’d given up, she got involved with Newton, who was not nearly as reticent. In fact he fell madly, obsessively in love. The longer she demurred the more his passion deepened. “Marty, Marty,” he would sigh, shaking his head patronizingly, between sips on his bottle of Ripple, “She cannot admit she loves me. She is afraid of love.”
I was privy to both sides of their affair — Marty would confide in Wharton’s girlfriend, who confided in Wharton, and he’d update me. Apparently, Newton was right, Marty did love him, and she was also afraid of his love. I could only imagine the anguished grappling they must have engaged in when they were alone together.
Wharton told me that he accidentally interrupted Newton in the bathroom sitting on the toilet jerking off an enormous erection — which Newton told him was over eleven inches in length. The image of Wharton lingering to discuss the matter is stuck in my head to this day.
Finally after several weeks of frenzied attempts, Wharton reported that Newton had finally succeeded in gaining an entry, albeit an equivocal one. It was not really clear whether it was forced, or voluntary, but in either case, Marty was not happy about it. She decided to discontinue the relationship.
Newton was devastated, but not deterred. His eyes filled with tears as he insisted, over sips of Ripple, that she loved him and that she would eventually realize it. Night after night we repeatedly mulled various stratagem to get her to realize the mistake she was making.
Wharton said that Newton’s attempts at reconciliation were increasingly frantic the longer Marty resisted his entreaties. He was even found slumped on her doorstep late one night. Another time, as we sat in the dimly lit living room, two cops appeared, dragging a sobbing, distraught Newton. They dropped him on the floor and pointed at us, “You’d better take care of your friend, or he’ll be in serious trouble.”
Marty finally had to have a restraining order put on him, but Newton persisted, until in an apparent outburst of frustrated passion, he bit her hand. Shortly after that he was deported back to Jamaica. Later, Wharton would tell me he’d heard that Newton had become a homeless wino living on the waterfront back in Jamaica.
After we moved out of the old house I got an apartment with another friend from high school, who also had a girlfriend and was away even more than Wharton had been, which suited me just fine. Bruce stayed with me there for awhile. He hadn’t made the Olympic team and his track career was over. He was drifting around, not sure what to do with himself. We had long conversations about the new black power movement and the Black Muslims, who I admired for their self-sufficiency and independence. Later, I was surprised when I heard he’d become a Muslim himself, and married Mabel, a homely, but strong-minded black woman.
I came across him on the street in Downtown San Jose, selling “Mohammad Speaks” the official newspaper of the Nation of Islam. “White man is the devil,” he proclaimed.
“Bruce, good to see you,” I said, forgetting that he’d changed his name to “Kyrou.”
“Well, not all white men,” he replied with a wry smile.
IN THE FLESH
The first time I laid eyes on Patty was at a party thrown by some students in the journalism department in one of those nondescript, boxy, pastel-colored stucco apartment buildings near campus. The large main room, darkened for effect, was crowded with students talking like crazy and apparently trying to get drunk as quickly as possible. Most of the guys wore madras shirts with pale blue or khaki colored slacks and parted their short hair on one side. The girls, with mounds of hair stacked and waved about their heads, favored tight-fitting, knee length skirts and pale fuzzy sweaters that wrapped them in a soft seductive halo of angora wool.
Loud music throbbed in the background as I clutched a can of beer and peered through the dim smokey light. There was no one there I knew — which I didn’t mind. In fact I relished the feeling of freedom such anonymity conferred.
She was sitting across the room in the light from the apartment’s kitchen, smoking a long filtered cigarette and speaking earnestly to someone nearby. Her full lips, glossed with pale pink lipstick, moved sensuously when she spoke, pausing occasionally to exhale smoke towards the ceiling. With an unconscious thrust of her head a thick wave of black hair was thrown back and she emitted a loud, almost masculine laugh.
Without giving it a second thought I cast aside my usual shyness, walked over and asked her if she’d like to dance. She looked up coyly with a quizzical expression. Without a word she put out her cigarette, set down her drink and stood up, almost as tall as me.
I followed her to the center of the room where a few other couples were gyrating to the booming beat that surrounded and suffused everything in the darkened apartment. We stopped and faced each other a few feet apart on the dance floor, pausing for a moment like two combatants about to duel, before picking up the beat and moving our hips and arms to the rhythm.
Despite an awkward but endearing ungainliness to her movements she seemed to say to herself, “To hell with it, I’m going to dance and enjoy myself.” Absorbed in the inner world of her body and the music, her dark eyes lowered beneath long black lashes and with the self-satisfied expression of someone who knows she’s being watched and admired, Patty moved towards me like a vision from some distant past.
A few days later she showed up unexpectedly at my apartment between classes. I was living in an older, somewhat seedy, second story walk-up near campus. The windows afforded a distant view of students lounging on a broad lawn in front of the physical education building. Down the back stairs in a small courtyard my motorcycle leaned against a wall, slowly dripping oil and giving off gasoline fumes in the warm sun.
We stood close together just inside the apartment with the bed in view through an open door to one side of us. As she explained how she just happened to be passing by, surges of sexual energy slowly uncoiled and began moving upward around our bodies. We started making out, pressing and moving against each other. She held her lips stiffly against mine, as if that was all she could do and still breath in deep gasps.
I tentatively lifted her skirt with one hand. Meeting no resistance my fingers glided under the soft silky fabric of her panties, across smooth skin, through crinkly pubic hair and down into the warm wet slit between her thighs. Wild with desire we tore our clothes off and I entered her as she lay back on the bed.
With a few frenzied strokes we both came. As I settled into a more measured rhythm her vagina contracted and gushed again and again.
“Do you love me?” she gasped as I moved back and forth inside her.
“I do, I do love you.”
I lost count of our orgasms. When I finally slid off her, wet with our mingled fluids and sweat, we both lay back exhausted. She looked up with a shy smile as I gazed at her naked body spread across my bed. “You’re beautiful,” I said softly.
Her breasts, surprisingly large on her slender frame, were pear-shaped, the nipples rising up like the top of the fruit where it attaches to the tree. Her small torso and high hips curved down to long slender legs. Below a soft round tummy, between smooth brown thighs, her shiny black pubic hair thrust forward over a vagina so lovely and sweetly formed that I approached it like a supplicant worshiping at some dark hidden altar.
She squirmed, crossing her legs and turning towards me. “I’m not really beautiful. I’m too fat.”
“You’re even skinnier than me,” I laughed, glancing at my stark white body next to her golden brown hues. “You’re darker than me too.”
“I’m Italian,” she said proudly throwing back her mane of wavy black hair, warm reddish hues shining in the late afternoon light.
“I’m half Norwegian on my mother’s side, although my grandmother was actually Finnish. My father’s side is a bit more complicated.” I was preparing to launch into the fascinating history of my forebears when she ran her hand over the sparse blond hairs on my chest and sank her fingers into the cavity where the ribs meet.
“You have a hole in your chest,” she exclaimed.
“It’s a birth defect. It used to embarrass me but I’ve gotten used to it. In fact I’m thankful for the body I have. It hardly ever fails me. It rarely gets sick. It’s not at all accident-prone. I know a guy who’s accident-prone, he’s always getting wrecked, cutting himself, crashing his car. I remember one time…”
“I have a birth defect too,” she interrupted, “a blockage in my intestines. If I smoke cigarettes and eat potato chips I get backed up and start farting.”
I laughed as she farted loudly — an incongruous sound to erupt from such a lovely creature. “Well, at least yours don’t stink,” I sniffed, “If I cut one you’d better watch out.”
I lay on the bed smoking a cigarette and watched her get dressed. “You are so beautiful,” I said again.
She smiled coyly, pulling a silky stocking up a long shapely leg and attaching it to garter strap at the side of her thigh. “Go on,” she said dismissing me with a wave of her hand.
Later, sitting in class, I could still furtively smell the sweet pungent odor of her vagina on the deliberately unwashed fingers of my right hand.
After that Patty and I started spending most of our spare time together. She was still living with her parents in a suburb about twenty minutes from campus. I traded my BSA motorcycle for a baby blue and white ‘55 Oldsmobile hardtop with a big wide front bumper and chrome breast-shaped bullets that protruded from either side of the grill. Almost every evening I drove her home after making love in my apartment.
Sometimes she would cook us dinner, her back to me in the light of my tiny kitchen, wearing one of my shirts above her small naked buns, while I sat back with a glass of red wine and looked on with admiration.
Afterwards, quiet and relaxed from our lovemaking, cruising towards her house down the long straight highway, past warehouses at the edge of town and scattered buildings lit up in the night, with the deep satisfying rumble of the Old’s V8 welling up around us and the warm valley air blowing through the long open windows, I’d feel like that moment was completely sufficient — all I would ever need.
One day as casually as she might mention what she ate for lunch she said she’d had sex with someone else, a guy from one of her classes who answered the door naked when she showed up at his apartment to get some lecture notes.
“Oh…how was it?” I asked lamely, smiling back at her to conceal my pain, like a trained prizefighter who has just taken a hard shot to the stomach. I was astonished at the visceral effect her announcement had on me.
“Not as good as you.” She must have sensed my discomfort because she changed the subject and didn’t mention it again.
In all my twenty-odd years I’d never felt pain like that, not even a twinge of jealousy. This was a new sensation. I examined it as one might lift the scab on a wound, bringing it up in my mind and turning it this way and that, the energy of the pain standing out clearly before me. It struck me as totally irrational and I soon forgot it in the pleasures of our relationship.
One evening, she turned to me and said, “When we were having sex that first time, did I ask you if you loved me.” She seemed chagrined to have broached such a personal question so early in our relationship.
“Yeah, you did,” I said smiling at her embarrassment, “But I do completely love you.”
In spite of herself, it was a question she would ask often. The emotion that traveled between us when I told her I loved her turned both of us on, like an electrical current flowing from me to her.
“You won’t still love me when I’m old and fat,” she pouted, lowering her eyes.
“I can’t imagine not loving you. I feel like I’ve always loved you.”
Marijuana was still very difficult to find in the early sixties, so it was a big deal when Patty and I finally managed to “score” some for the first time. We were both nervous as we lit one of the incredibly skinny (about an eighth of an inch thick) hand-rolled cigarettes. It smelled and tasted like wet alfalfa.
We passed it back and forth with anticipation. Nothing happened.
We lit another one and poured ourselves some more Vin Rose from a big jug. We were already expert smokers from maintaining our cigarette habits. Patty did her trick of letting the smoke drift slowly up out of her lips while inhaling it again through her nostrils. I blew perfect smoke rings.
Halfway through the second marijuana cigarette, just as we were plotting how we’d get revenge on the guy who had sold it to us, we realized the absurdity of the whole thing. It was ridiculous getting all worked up over some phony weed. We were actually almost relieved to find out it had no effect on us. Our nervousness evaporated. We laughed as we passed the remainder of the pathetic little thing back and forth, enjoying the camaraderie of our mutual gullibility. We laughed at our own ridiculousness.
We laughed and laughed. We kept laughing until we were howling, until tears were running down our cheeks, until we’d forgotten what we were laughing about.
When I finally paused and took a good look at Patty, I stopped laughing. Her laughter had taken on a different, ominous character. I couldn’t tell anymore if she was laughing or screaming hysterically. She was shrieking so loudly I became concerned that the neighbors would be alerted that there was something weird going on.
We were in a new studio apartment I’d just rented on the ground floor of a fairly large apartment complex. The only neighbors I’d met, upstairs in the apartment directly over us, were an animated group of Nigerian exchange students who listened constantly to Afro-Cuban jazz music. I could hear their music at that very moment, drums and horns, throbbing and blaring down on us through the ceiling.
Patty was out of control. I expected the Nigerians to shut off their music at any moment and come down, along with the other tenants in the complex, to investigate the dreadful screams coming from the new renter’s apartment. For an instant I saw inside all the other apartments at once, as people looked at each other and wondered where those screams were coming from. I imagined the flashing lights of police cars outside.
I had to do something. I grabbed Patty and started kissing her. Within minutes we were on the floor, my pants down and her skirt up, making love on the carpet.
The compelling rhythms of the Nigerian jazz flowed over us from above as we moved together in time with the beat in a kind of erotic dance, only executed horizontally.
I closed my eyes. The sound of the drums, Patty’s body, my pulsing inside her, all moved and merged into one rhythm. Suddenly the darkness was lit up by a bonfire, the flames dancing and flickering to the beat. A line of naked black African women danced in front of the fire, their sweaty bodies glistening with reflected firelight, their arms and hands moving gracefully up and down their bodies, their hips and breasts thrusting and shaking with the drums, moving faster as the beat became more urgent, harder and faster, until Patty, the black dancers, myself, the whole world, all came at once in a delirious, pulsating orgiastic rush of pure pleasure.
“Wow,” I exclaimed as we caught our breath afterwards, “I hope we didn’t disturb the neighbors.
A NEW GENERATION
After President Kennedy was assassinated, the internal tensions and divisions in the country began to manifest. The sixties were heating up, with the civil rights movement in the South and opposition to the Vietnam war, along with a new element — LSD, which was suddenly available.
An intoxicating sense of purpose and destiny was awakening in many of the young people of my generation — children of the post war “baby boom.”
While several of my friends became involved in civil rights and the later anti-war efforts, I remained somewhat aloof from it all, envisioning myself as sort of a theoretician behind the movement, rather than a foot soldier,
My friend Mel was probably the most active. I’d met him when I was working as a firefighter one summer and he was an “engineer” traveling to different forest service stations to work on roads. He was already a radical leftist revolutionary who, without wasting a lot of words, acted out against the “establishment” and corporate power. Like me, he was a student at San Jose State, where he was, oddly enough, a Physical Education major.
On a trip to a nearby town, Mel decided to engage in a little radical political action by “liberating” some sirloin steaks from a Safeway market — an obvious corporate oppressor. A clerk saw him stuffing steaks down the front of his shirt and when he left the market a couple of employees chased after him. Catching a college P.E. major was not easy, but they were determined, and they pursued Mel down back alleys and through yards. Finally he clambered over a tall fence and ran across a back yard, only to plunge over his head into an open cesspool. Looking back as he climbed out of the stinking slime and slunk off, he said the clerks were hanging over the fence and laughing so hard they gave up the chase. They probably figured justice had been served. Needless to say, the steaks were a lost cause, but the fact that Mel was even able to recount this story without embarrassment, is a testament to his humble character.
The following summer Mel traveled to Mississippi as a “freedom rider,” putting his life and his liberal beliefs on the line in the struggle for racial equality.
Except for an occasional marijuana joint, Patty was not particularly involved in the revolutionary currents that were beginning to swirl around us. In fact we were something of a mismatched couple. She wore makeup and silk stockings and always looked dressed up around the campus. She seemed to know everyone and was active in student government. I on the other hand was a loner, with dark scraggly blond hair and a reddish goatee — a brooding Dostoevskyian character given to long late night walks, who wore the same outfit everyday, apparel I considered to have just the right patina of age and venerability.
If I was out of favor with her she called me a “beady-eyed beatnik,” and when I was in her good graces she addressed me simply as “poopsie,” which, since it was intended as a term of endearment, I soon learned to like.
Always aware of her appearance, she wore contact lenses most of the time, which she frequently lost on the carpet of my apartment, forcing us to crawl frantically around on our hands and knees until we found them. At other times she wore ridiculous oversized, black-rimmed glasses that made her look like a cartoon character of a librarian.
With the contrast between her proper femininity and my bohemian appearance I could easily feel like I was violating her when we made love, which only aroused me the more.
I found it interesting that our birth signs were exact opposites. I was a Sagittarius, born just before the winter solstice, and she was a Gemini, born right before the summer solstice. It seemed to fit somehow — I was the cool introverted Scandinavian of the north and she was the warm-blooded Italian of the south.
Our families were opposites as well. My father was a left-wing liberal if there ever was one, and an avowed socialist. Her father, a right-wing conservative, was a retired brigadier general who worked for Lockheed Aerospace Corporation. In the entryway to their upper-middle-class track home hung a print of Rembrandt’s “Old Soldier,” with his absurd gold helmet, sad eyes and long face. Patty confided to me that they referred to her father as “Briggy” at home and that he frequently cried when they picked on him at the dinner table.
Her mother, on the other hand, was a stout, formidable Italian with a large bosom. I couldn’t resist trying to picture her as a young woman, wondering if she had ever been slender and graceful like her daughter was now.
Although Patty said her mother confessed to liking me personally, she didn’t approve of me in general, particularly because I was an art major, and a scruffy one at that, who was obviously heading for a life as the proverbial starving artist — not a good match for her daughter.
It soon became clear that her mother had launched a campaign to undermine our relationship, that became more vociferous the longer we continued seeing one another. I tried to mollify her by presenting her with one of my best paintings, which promptly disappeared, never to be seen again.
I suspect Patty’s parents thought I was a bad influence on her, that I was leading her astray. If they only knew — she was the one who bragged about having been rampantly promiscuous before we met, while this was my first real sexual relationship. In addition, her brother Bruce, only a year younger, was a raging homosexual, a classic queen, who wore as much makeup as his sister as soon as he was out of the house.
Patty and her brother were very close and they clung to one another like two children in a hostile world. I remember one especially poignant scene when we were all quite drunk and they sat on my couch leaning against each other and singing “Blue moon, I saw you standing alone, without a dream of your own.”
Despite their closeness I never sensed any hostility or jealousy from Bruce. In fact he enjoyed teasing me when we were alone by coming on to me, running his tongue over his lips or around the neck of a beer bottle and making eyes at me. I sometimes suspected that he coached his sister in how to please a man in bed, because she seemed to know exactly what would drive me wild and flatter my male ego.
A BAD TRIP
Patty moved in with a girlfriend, into a house not far from my apartment — which pleased me no end, since it meant I could see her almost anytime.
One weekend afternoon we each swallowed a 250 microgram capsule of LSD — a standard dose in those days, enough for a strong eight hour “trip.” LSD was still legal and the general public had no idea what was going on inside us as we wandered aimlessly through town in a vortex of brilliant, undulating colors and upwelling energy patterns.
At an intersection we came upon an automobile accident that had just occurred. Two cars were smashed together. Steaming metal, twisted and bent, pulsated and undulated, giving off palpable waves of shock and horror.
We quickly went in another direction to a nearby city park where the pastoral landscape changed the mood entirely. We stumbled around exclaiming and marveling at the intricate patterns in the bark of the trees and the colors of the plants and foliage.
Sitting and looking down a gentle slope towards groups of picnickers lolling on the grass like a colorful Seurat painting, Patty suddenly became agitated and wanted to go somewhere else. She mumbled something about “families,” the presence of which apparently upset her.
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking, for what seemed like several years, each experience and scene incredibly profound and intense, but quickly lost to memory.
Finally, as it was getting dark we got back to the street by my apartment. On a corner nearby was a large mortuary. As we walked past it Patty suddenly turned and ran giggling up the walkway, opened the front door, and went inside. I followed, feeling apprehensive.
Inside we crept across lush carpet down a long hallway. Before I could stop her Patty opened one of the doors to the side of us and went in, with me right behind her. Soothing music came on as we entered and the lid on a large ornate coffin in the center of the room slowly opened up, revealing a man in a suit and tie encased in fresh linen and made up to look peacefully reposed, but nonetheless obviously quite dead.
I pulled Patty away before she could get any closer and quickly led her back out the way we’d come.
Once safely inside my apartment I tried to engage her in lovemaking but she was unresponsive and easily distracted. Suddenly she pulled back. “I’m going home,” she said coldly, without emotion, “I don’t want to see you anymore.”
“Ever?” I asked, recoiling.
“Never,” she said and walked out the door.
I fell back on my bed. After awhile I closed my eyes and tried to calm myself in the yogic “dead pose.” Lying there, breathing slowly, palms upward at my sides, I progressively relaxed each part of my anatomy, from my face and head, all the way down to my feet, slowly letting go with each exhalation.
Before long I realized that I actually was dying. As I fell back into darkness I just went with it, letting go of my life — through stage after stage of the death process.
The next morning I awoke, disappointed to find I was still alive.
For an agonizing week I forced myself to stay away from Patty. I hoped she would approach me instead, but she didn’t. Finally, when I couldn’t stand it any longer, I went over to her house one evening.
Her roommate answered the door. “Hi Carolyn,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant, “Is Patty here?”
“No, she went out,” Carolyn said, looking uncomfortable.
Unable to resist, I asked, “With someone?”
“Yes,” she replied and told me Patty was seeing a Psychology Instructor from the University, whose name I didn’t recognize.
“Thanks,” I mumbled, as she closed the door.
I stumbled off into the night and spent the next week or two unable to do anything but walk the streets at a rapid pace, head lowered, with both hands thrust deep into my pockets. I couldn’t sleep. I could barely eat anything.
Finally, I realized, if I didn’t pull out of it, that my grades, which had been quite good up to that point, would suffer irreparably. I made an appointment with a therapist at the University clinic. As I told her what was going on with me her sincere sympathy and compassion was like a soothing balm. She said I was the most depressed person she’d ever seen, which somehow made me feel better, like my pain had been validated and I could start moving on. I realized my depression, while painful, had a cause — namely someone I deeply desired had rejected me. Unlike a more general depression, the cause of which is usually obscure, my depression would eventually heal, like any wound, even such a deep one.
Gradually I recovered my composure, but I avoided Patty entirely and tried not to think about her.
My good friend Mel must have felt sorry for me. He told me about “A most gorgeous black chick,” and shortly thereafter I found myself sitting opposite Cindy at his tiny kitchen table. He also must have said something to her about me and made me sound pretty good, because as we sat together and made small talk I realized she was flirting with me in a most alluring fashion, smiling and glancing at me beneath lowered lashes, turning her supple body this way and that in striking poses. When our eyes met a bolt of energy shot through me, arousing a hot swelling movement between my legs.
“Would you like to come over to my place for a drink,” I asked, “It’s just up the street. I have a little vodka and orange juice in the fridge.”
“Sure,” she smiled, and gave me a look that sent another surge through my groin.
My apartment, at the edge of downtown, was on the second floor of a big boxy commercial building on a busy thoroughfare. One whole side of my living room wall was taken up with a row of four large windows above the street entrance to a laundromat below. For privacy I’d painted over the inside of the windows with white water-soluble tempera paint and then carved out large Chinese letters through the paint of each window with a damp sponge so that light could come through the letters from both directions — letters from a zen book which when translated meant something like “peace’ and the “Way.” From the street the lit up Chinese writing made it look like a sign for a Chinese laundry, which I thought was pretty cool.
Sitting on my old over-stuffed sofa beneath the four white windows with their illuminated calligraphy, Cindy told me about her new job as an airline stewardess. Mel had said earlier that she was the first black stewardess in the country.
I could see why.
She was truly gorgeous — six feet tall, with a naturally regal bearing, thin graceful wrists, full round breasts, a narrow waist, and long elegant legs. She was colored a wonderfully deep dark brown, with classic features — wide-set nostrils, high cheekbones and big full lips, the upper lip chiseled with a sharp line where the two sides came together. She had large, almost oriental, almond-shaped eyes.
I was amazed at my good fortune, that she would take an interest in me, a pathetic recently rejected white boy.
When we ran out of vodka I suggested we walk to the liquor store across the street for more. We went down the hall and out the back way across the dark roof towards the outside stairs.
“This is where I do my painting, out here on the roof,” I explained, “I use enamel paints from the hardware store down on the corner and drip and flow them on large wood panels. Then I go in with a brush to finish them up.”
Without a word, she grabbed me, slammed me down on the rough surface of the roof, pressed her body and lips down on mine and thrust her tongue into my mouth.
Once again I marveled a my good fortune.
Back inside my apartment, with the awe and excitement of the first explorer on a dark, mysterious continent, my fingers traversed her body, gliding around taut black nipples, over lush brown satiny skin, across a firm flat tummy with softly rounded muscle on either side of a tiny belly button, then down through tight steely black pubic hair to finally plunge into the hot red interior of a lush black vagina.
After that I became her man and Cindy treated me in a manner befitting my newly elevated status. She brought me gifts when she came back from her airline flights, most notably a thick black wool turtleneck sweater that I was to wear almost constantly thereafter. She even cooked me dinners of delicious crispy fried chicken and greens.
I couldn’t resist driving up to Walnut Creek and introducing her to my parents. Over dinner Cindy appeared uncharacteristically nervous and I realized that my parent’s upper-middle-class home, with a view of the town and mountain in the distance, must have seemed opulent to her.
I’d never met any of her family and didn’t even know where she lived. The black neighborhood in San Jose was characteristically poor and run down. Once, on one of my long walks through that part of town, I saw Cindy in a tiny beauty parlor having her hair straightened. She was embarrassed for me to see her there and shooed me away.
My father was suitably impressed with Cindy, but my mother was noticeably shaken. She warned me later what a hard time we would have if we were to get married and how difficult it would for our children. Interracial marriages were still almost non-existent and were even illegal in some Southern states. I said I thought that if we had children they would be beautiful and I let myself imagine what they would look like.
Once, when Cindy stayed with me between flights, I talked her into sharing a marijuana joint with me. She was reluctant, making vague reference to a bout with some kind of mental illness when she was younger.
After several puffs she became acutely aware of the slovenly untidiness of my apartment, jumped up, and started making the bed, throwing dirty clothes into the closet, washing dishes, and cleaning the kitchen with such abandon that she seemed to be moving in fast-motion like one of those old silent movies — only even more uproariously funny.
Cindy was a Jehovah’s Witness and she was soon trying to convert me to that unique brand of Christianity. She emphasized their pacifism and other characteristics she thought would appeal to me. I let myself be led to one of their meetings, mainly because she was such a fox that I loved to be seen in public with her. The speaker (they apparently weren’t ministers or preachers) spent the entire sermon (or talk) inveighing against the evils of “fornication” — which only served to make us horny.
When we returned to my apartment we tore our church clothes off and started going at it like dogs, me behind her on the bed leaning back on my knees, the shaft of my cock looking surprisingly large gliding back and forth through raspy wet labia and the tight juicy warmth between her round up-thrust brown buttocks.
She came down with a bladder infection after that and I wondered if it was brought on by guilt for having “fornicated” with me. If it was she never expressed any such reservations.
Things were not going well for her at the airlines. She said they gave her the worst flights and generally made life difficult for her in whatever way they could. I guessed that Mel and other activists had pressured the airline to hire her and now the management was taking it out on her.
Finally she couldn’t take it anymore and quit. She wasn’t a crusader. She said she just wanted to do a good job and get along with people.
Unfortunately, her wimpy white boyfriend would only add to her sorrow.
One afternoon my phone rang. The familiar voice was soft and tremulous, with just a hint of desperation.
“Hi Poopsie. I miss you.”
For a change the poles were reversed and the current was running from Patty to me, flowing straight down the phone lines. I was powerless to resist. She must have heard about my relationship with Cindy and was jealous, but at least she cared.
Cindy reacted with anger when she found out I was seeing Patty again. She stormed into my apartment with her friend Mabel and threatened to disconnect my testicles from my body. I instinctively went into a defensive crouch and told them to go ahead and try. This surprised both of them so much that they backed off and left with a few parting epithets.
After that I would never think of Cindy without feeling a twinge of guilt and remorse. At the same time I couldn’t help entertaining some hubris over the fact that two beautiful women had both wanted me.
A MARRIAGE PROPOSAL
Patty graduated that summer and moved back in with her parents. We continued our relationship as before but I began to sense that I was losing her again, that her mother was trying to pry her away from me. Finally Patty told me she was going to take a job teaching journalism at a high school in Wheeling West Virginia where some relatives lived, including a grandmother that she could stay with until she got settled.
Painful as it was, in order to spend at least a little more time with her, I agreed to drive her to the airport. On the way to San Francisco, in a last act of desperation I asked her to marry me. Although I had come to view marriage as just another empty bourgeoisie form, given the situation, I was completely serious.
She politely demurred, which was not surprising at such a late date, just as she was going off to an exciting new job.
As we walked through the airport terminal we passed a very tall black man who I recognized as the basketball star, Wilt Chamberlain. “Man that’s a beautiful lady you got there,” he said to me. I nodded begrudgingly, knowing that she was not mine for long.
On the boarding platform we embraced a last time. Somewhat awkwardly, but with evident sincerity, Patty said, “I’ll never forget you. You’ve meant so much to me.”
Then the familiar, slim figure disappeared down the ramp to the plane without looking back.