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.
All I can remember of my paternal grandmother is her smell, perfume mingled with the odor of coffee, as she held me uneasily on her wide, soft lap.
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, 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 of my own 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. 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, 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, looking out through another person’s eyes in one of the homes nearby .
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 small 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 seemed 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. I was transfixed the first time I saw an image of a figure in meditation, a photograph of a stone statue from ancient India sitting in the half lotus with open hands on lap — 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 all 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 thought, “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 the big logging corporations had 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.
Near the end of that summer I would have one more close encounter with a bear, when a lightening storm ignited numerous small fires in the surrounding wilderness and everyone on the crew was dispatched to various locations.
A small helicopter took two of us firefighters along a steep barren ridge so we could jump out the open door towards the ground on the high side of the precipitous incline, which looked close enough, except for the fact that we tended to fall straight down after leaping from the chopper. Luckily, we weren’t hurt despite wearing heavy packs.
It was dark by the time we hiked to a point where we could see two separate fires about a half mile apart in tall snags (dead trees). Although we were not supposed to go out on fires alone, I suggested we split up. My companion went to the closest fire while I hiked through dense brush, wet with the recent rain and thunder storm, towards the other one.
It was first time I’d been so far out alone in the woods at night. Sudden loud crashing sounds, probably elk bolting away from me in the darkness, made me jump nervously. The landscape loomed eerily in the dim light of my flashlight, so I turned it off to concentrate on the orange glow of the burning tree in the distance. As I trudged along in the dark I abruptly ran face first into a soft, furry chest, that I realized later was a bear standing in my path. Luckily we both ran off in opposite directions.
When I arrived at the fire it was burning about fifty feet up a tall cedar snag. Using my Pulaski, a tool with a wide flat pick on one side of its head and an an axe blade on the other, I cleared the saplings and brush from around the base of the tree so that when it fell it wouldn’t catch the rest of the forest on fire.
When I figured I’d cleared enough around the burning tree I began chopping halfheartedly at it’s huge trunk. The dead wood was rock-hard with age. Before long I gave up and went to sleep instead, being careful to note which way the snag was leaning, so that I was on the opposite side from where it would fall.
I awoke just as the top half of the burning snag was coming loose. It toppled down onto the edge of the space I’d cleared, torching a clump of resinous evergreen saplings which burst into flames.
I attacked the blaze with all my energy and for awhile it was uncertain if I would prevail. Finally after an hour of two of horrendous exertion I managed to extinguish the last of the blaze.
For the rest of the day I sat and watched the snag burn down from its broken off top as I ate some of the K rations I’d specially packed for myself, containing my favorites of baked beans or beef stew, along with canned pears.
That night a freezing cold front came in. Fortunately the fire was so dead by then that I was able to sleep inside the remaining stump, which had hollowed out and was still nice and warm inside.
I’d been in radio contact with a nearby lookout tower and the next morning I was directed to a main trail, where I met up with other firefighters and hiked back to the station. It was the end of the season and I was happy to finally head back to civilization.
Note — there’s another chapter to be inserted here.
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, had on 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 shiny black hair in the 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, fueled by 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 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 soon to be 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 quickly 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 my 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, turning pale and 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 the 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. 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 Mable 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.