Sunday, September 30, 2007

Seasons of Love

I've been asked more than once to name my favorite season of the year. Enough times that for years now, I've had no trouble doing it.

My favorite season is: the beginning. I mean, when answering the question with regard to the calendar, those early days of every season when we first notice the change, embrace it even, as a welcome shift from something we've had enough of, finally, for at least one more year. Maybe that shift from autumn to winter, or from spring to summer is too subtle a thing to notice, really, a shift in degree more than kind. But those other two, we all feel, and most, I think, welcome. That initial bright day after the long, cold hibernation of winter when we notice the first green buds springing from gray branches and can finally step out the door without a coat and scarf, and the sun seems once again to hint at the days soon when it will light the world head on, rather than from around some cloudy corner. I like winter, I love snow, I find grey days, like Thoreau, more favorable for reflection. But, by the time spring comes, I'm ready for it. That's a real change, a beginning. The slide from spring to summer is a thing more subtle, insidious even. A first day may even escape notice; rather, suddenly, one day, we'll realize it's been summer for a week already, or longer. The same for that slide into gray and cold that doesn't so much mark the beginning of winter as let us know that we've been there for days or weeks already.

But autumn. Perhaps my single most favorite memory of the first home I ever owned is wrapped up in that beginning. I can remember sitting on the street in front of my townhome, the top down on a Carmine Red 1975 Triumph Spitfire, James Taylor's Dad Loves His Work in the tape deck, a glass of Dry Sack Sherry in my hand, and a cool breeze on my face. I probably sat there because, as yet, I had no patio furniture for my deck, nor even a couch for my living room, or table for the dining room. But no matter. From the deck, I would have missed the slant of the sun through the water oak and the rattle of the leaves on the pavement. Had I not been where I was, the smell of leather might not be so inextricably linked to those first days of fall for me.

Relationships have beginnings as well, but exciting as they are, I think I would say my favorite season in relationships must be autumn. Having survived the fragile excitement of spring and the turbulent storms of summer, those that make it to autumn are special indeed. Having made it that far, there is little doubt that they will last to the end of our winter as well. And just as with the calendar, there is something noticeable in those first days of a friendship's autumn, something softer about the light each brings to the relationship, something comfortable in the way an autumn friend wraps your heart in a blanket of acceptance. Like the cold air chilling the skin of your face while your body is safe and warm under a blanket at a mid-November football game, every other human interaction serves only to accentuate the warmth and safety of that friendship.

I closed an e-mail to one of those friends today with an expression, "Autumn hugs," that conflates both aspects of that season, calendar and relational, and that encompassed so much for me that I felt compelled to explain it. I share it here, only because, so far as I can tell, the limited audience of this forum hasn't expanded beyond a small circle of very close friends, all of whom can appreciate it. And though I may share it, the mental image it describes will always be inextricably linked to the friend that inspired it.

I think of an autumn hug as one of those moments we wish would last forever, outside on a deck in the slanting, yellow, muted light of late afternoon, paired glasses of some rich, buttery, cool chardonnay sitting on the rail, both persons in sweaters, melting into one another in no hurry, arms all the way around, one hand in the center of the back, the other gently stroking the back of a head, fingers entwined in hair, and a gentle, crisp breeze fanning that long hair across my face, the scent of which forms a medley with perfume, the just now decaying leaves and the hint of someone's first-of-the-season lighting of an upwind fireplace. A hug no special thing motivated. A hug that doesn't need to lead to anything else. The hug, the moment, the memory in the making of two hearts beating next to one another, is all. That kind of hug.
I will miss that this season.

And to accompany this rumination on seasons, I offer the following song from the musical Rent, which as soon as I hit "publish," I intend to watch, finally, having driven out to rent it between paragraphs above. Regardless of what the rest of this film does or doesn't have to offer, that one song is as good an anthem to friendship as has ever been written.

Here's wishing you all lots of those hugs.

Voltaire lives on

For the most part, I try to say original things here, rather than hanging links to others words, but this post over at Iowahawk is worth the nod. Here's a sample:

Emily Peterson
Fellow students, distinguished faculty, and honored guest; I'm Emily Peterson of the Enormous State University Student Union, and I would like to welcome all to another exciting and educational installment of ESU's Distinguished Guest Lecture Series. Today we are honored to present the remarks of His Excellency Gromulak, Overlord Chieftan of the R'Qqharbian Cess-Mutants.

[raucous applause, cheering]

Emily Peterson
Before we begin, I would like to remind all of you of the audience ground rules. First, please turn off all cell phones and pagers. Second, expressions of intolerance -- placards, demonstrations, coughing, or sudden movements of any kind -- will not be tolerated. Third, His Excellency has requested that all non-mutant Wo-Mans in menses cycle conceal themselves beneath an R'Qqharbian Shroud of Disgrace, which are available in the ballroom lobby. Your cooperation in following these rules will ensure a learning environment of open free speech. I would also remind you that violators will be escorted from the hall. To present Mr. Gromulak, please welcome President Whitworth.
And it only gets better from there.

Hat tip: Chap.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Clipped Wings

From the article, "Women's Club Celebrates Bygone Era in the Skies":

Most became flight attendants when flight attendants were called stewardesses. They had to be single, under a certain weight and age, and wear heels and sometimes gloves and always girdles.
. . . . .

But many accepted practices began to recede in the late ’60s and ’70s. Flight attendants — who lost the “stewardess” tag when men were hired in the early ’70s — could get married and have children. Weight and age restrictions began to relax.
Relax? I had a flight on Delta recently where the flight attendant herself would have needed to put up the armrest and occupy two seats. Relax? I haven't had one flight in the last three where more than one of the flight attendants was younger than me. Most of the doctors or lawyers or judges I meet these days are younger than me. Relax? One of the women in the article is quoted as explaining that, in the beginning, stewardesses (most women who have been one in the last quarter century will be quick to tell you "the term is 'flight attendant"), were expected to act as "like hostesses in our own homes." Relax? Passengers get friendlier service from the only mildly irritated woman at the Returns and Exchanges counter at Target than they do from most flight attendants these days. I got friendlier service from Kelly.

I get the friendliest service from the male flight attendants, but that's just one more aspect of an interesting paradox in my life. I'm quite comfortable and confident in my role as an enthusiastic heterosexual. Gays of my own gender don't threaten me. Consequently, I have quite a few gay male friends. So do my daughters, I suspect because those friends feel comfortable and accepted in our home. Gay men, even at a young age, seem to have something of a sixth sense about who is and is not a homophobe. On the other hand, I have only a few very special lesbian friends, and even their trust I had to earn. Most lesbians I've known seem to have a sixth sense as well, but it runs more along the lines of detecting (and instantly disliking, though I'm not sure why) heterosexual men. So, anytime I might worry that the comfort my gay male friends feel around me bespeaks some confusion about my own preferences, I need only approach a lesbian to see the shields go up and the porcupine spikes come out to be reassured. But I digress.

A few years ago, I read a great little comic book on the topic, Around the World in a Bad Mood!: Confessions of a Flight Attendant. The book has its own web site, from which you can get to the calendar for the stage version. I wish I were going to be in Salt Lake or Phoenix to see it. Having been subjected to the bad mood of more than one flight attendant in recent memory, it would be at least some consolation to get a laugh out of it.

In the Valley of Elah

I know I promised a review of The Brave One days ago, but bear with me.

These snippets come from a review of a different film in today's paper here in Colorado Springs:

“In the Valley of Elah” is not a war film, though at times it looks like one. It is not a murder mystery, though at times it sounds like one. “In the Valley of Elah” is a national requiem, a tortured dirge for the loss of American innocence and humanity, an anguished lament that we are destroying all that is pure and good in ourselves. You owe it to yourself and your country to endure this film.
. . . . .
“In the Valley of Elah” struggles to find meaning in the chaos of conflict. It is interested in the shattered psyches and hearts of soldiers . . . . What are our actions in Iraq doing to us? What happens when we are hurting ourselves more than the enemy? What are the lies we tell ourselves to make it through one more day? And what is left to call human when all humanity is bled dry?

It is extraordinary that a film this muted could resonate with a message this strong. The final image of the movie lacerates to the bone. And yet, the film is not political. It neither rallies behind nor condemns the war in Iraq. It simply looks at the state of our nation’s young warriors . . . and weeps.
I was only 19 when The Deer Hunter came out. I had been too young for Vietnam. I remember Cronkite on the news. I remember classmates whose older brothers were drafted, and one whose older brother fled to Canada. I was a sophomore at a military academy when that picture won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. We didn't get a lot of passes back then in that second year, but my friends and I intended to use one that night. We were going to watch the movie in the student center theater, then catch a bus down to an ice cream parlor at least five miles outside the gate. (Back then, you didn't run into civilization until you were at least five miles out the gate. The town has since grown right up to the gate.) That was our plan at least.

I don't even remember that much about The Deer Hunter, the movie itself. Little snippets here and there. I remember one thing. When it was over--and this would have been early in the evening by college standards for a Friday night, say just 9 p.m. or so--when it was over, none of us went downtown. I'm not sure what the other guys did. I went back to my room and went to bed. I have never been so emotionally exhausted by a movie.

This newest film from Paul Haggis, (just go to the link and look at the list) is like that. The review from which I quote above is pretty much spot on. I'll point out only one more thing: it occurs to me that the family name in this new film, Deerfield, may well be a tribute to that earlier movie about what happens to men when they come back from war, and just how much of their souls they sometimes leave behind. In the Valley of Elah is a Deer Hunter for this age, for this war. I saw it tonight, intending afterwards to visit a favorite bar for a drink and to see who might be hanging out. Instead, I came home. I'm writing this. And then, I'm going to bed.

I give the movie an A+. But I'll warn you, if you have a son or daughter who's come home from Iraq, or who's still there, you may want to put off seeing this for a decade or two, until you're really sure whether they made it back in one piece or not.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Recurring Training

In the Air Force, there's a long list of recurring training items that we have to check off every year. The CSAF recently promised to get rid of much of it--I mean what's the likelihood that we'll forget from year to year that you shouldn't sell secrets to anyone or use your government computer (or any computer) to help the former Ethiopian finance minister get his $100K to the US for a nice 20% cut--but I haven't seen any of it go away yet. Among those computer-based training (CBT) modules is an annual lesson in why it's bad to trade people as a commodity, how to recognize the signs that it's happening, and what to do when you suspect it. It's called Trafficking in Humans.

Here's a suggestion: instead of blithely clicking the next button until the digital drudgery is over this year, why don't we all watch Eastern Promises instead. You can argue that this is a crime drama, a modern Godfather, or a suspense film. You could argue that it's simply a vehicle to display the fairly prodigious acting talents of Viggo Mortensen and others. But, at its core, the engine that drives this train is human trafficking. It's not so much a movie about that sad trade, in the way that, say, Blow, is about the cocaine trade; rather, Eastern Promises is a movie about that trade in the way that Reign Over Me is about 9/11. The flesh of either story has a life of its own, but beneath each, giving either film birth and form are the events without which the story couldn't exist. Each is about not the mechanics of that skeleton, but the costs. And those costs, if you can make them real, will do more to motivate all of us to see, prevent, and intervene than all the CBT reminders of international law and DoD regulations can hope to.

And one last thing: it's a damned good film to boot. I'd give it an A-.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

My Girlfriend

I am written out tonight, so I thought I would just offer a quick picture of my ever faithful girlfriend. Who wouldn't fall in love with eyes that blue? We make a pretty good pair, out for a walk in a Colorado snowstorm, a Siberian Husky and a guy in a knee-length black wool overcoat and that Russian hat.
Tomorrow, reviews of Eastern Promises and The Brave One, which I saw back to back on Saturday.

Sunday, September 23, 2007


Just in case anyone needs a reminder of what it feels like to love and be loved. Balm for the heart. Enjoy.

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

Follow Up: Michelle Manhart

Back in the middle of January, I had a short post about the former AF sergeant turned Playboy model, Michelle Manhart (not her real name).

Here's a little video update, from Military Times.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Just Call Me Bob

Oh, there is so nothing in the world to put things in perspective like a good friend. I was bummed last night. I was still bummed this morning. It was in a rather somber mood that I wrote to a friend this morning explaining why. This is what I got back:

Oh, my God. I re-read the Kelly saga. I cannot stop laughing out loud. It is sooooooo funny. Please tell me you could hardly keep from laughing all night long. Your voice today with those words re-telling your thoughts [I'm guessing she meant the Paris remark, but that was so out loud]---oh it was so funny. I'll read that anytime I want to get happy. You have got to write a book. Got to.

"Wrong wrong, wrong," Just too funny, every word of that tale.
Ohhh-kay then. So I tried re-reading it myself. I had tears in my eyes, I was laughing so hard. It is funny now. Hilarious. Last night and this morning I was just too busy licking my wounded ego to see it. So, I'll share. I would change the names, but no one in this town reads this blog anyway, and if Kelly does, hopefully she'll get a laugh too, because God knows I'm not taking a run at those shields again soon.

Last September, John came out and I took him skydiving. That evening, we stopped by a local bar/restaurant. Behind the bar was Kelly. Kelly was friendly. Kelly was a single mom. Kelly seemed like someone who had it all together. She seemed bright. She was in awesome shape. She was energetic, burning more calories per hour behind the bar than I do on a five-mile run. She was a delight to talk to. Right after we all traded names, she went back to the register to do something, and in profile, I saw her say my name. The look on her face, the way she said it, hadn't been matched since my first wife, whose particular way of saying it likely had something to do with my marrying her. That that marriage lasted all of three weeks should have been a warning, but no. I'm apparently a very slow learner. That moment, seeing Kelly say it, took me back to those earlier moments. And the way she said it, not knowing that I was watching, led me to believe that meeting me was as much a delight to her as meeting her was to me. It probably won't spoil the rest of this story to tell you that I was, um, how shall I put this . . . mistaken.

At any rate, I wasn't in a place to do anything about my impressions then. I was busy trying, and actually harboring some hope of success, to finally get it right with the woman I had been very much in love with for over 20 years. I didn't forget that moment though, and at some point, actually months later, I wrote a thank you note, anonymously, that I considered leaving at the bar for her. I never did though.

Then, this summer, I learned that I was really the only person interested in putting any more effort into getting right what 20+ years had amply demonstrated wasn't working. So, I did, finally, drop off that thank you note for Kelly about a week ago, along with my number, and a brief note that some things in my life had changed, and that if she might ever be interested in grabbing a cup of coffee sometime, I hoped she would call. Seemed unassuming enough to me. That she didn't call wasn't so much of a surprise, but it also occurred to me that maybe the person with whom I'd left the card never delivered it.

So yesterday, I called. She was actually quite fun to talk to, and seemed comfortable enough. No she hadn't gotten the card. I told her with whom I'd left it. I invited her, on the phone, to have coffee after work. She couldn't. She had to work until nine. Had to pick up the kids. "Okay. I understand. But you should find that card."

Between the phone conversation and the prospect, late yesterday at work, of a rather challenging adventure with which to fill the next year, I was feeling pretty bulletproof when I left the office, came home, got out of my flight suit, showered, dressed and left to say hello to Kelly in person.

I suppose what I failed to take into account is that Kelly, working behind a bar, must get hit on about a dozen times a night, and not by guys who are actually interested in getting to know her. I had thought I was someone special. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. She asked if I wanted to stay and have a drink. Okay. I did. But then, she made no particular effort to talk to me. Shortly thereafter, I noticed, sadly, that whenever she took any customer's name, she said it aloud--to aid her memory, perhaps, or merely to make a point that her saying mine (remember the Thank You card) was nothing special. Gradually, I became aware that she had more layers of shielding up than the starship Enterprise in full battle dress. I was sitting right under an AC vent blowing cold air, but the more I think about it, the chill was more than that.

Eventually, I asked if she might be interested in having coffee sometime.

Her response and change in demeanor was as sudden and only slightly less frightening than Bilbo's reaching for the ring in Rivendell. "You need to get to know me better before you start asking me out." "Sorry. Thought that's what I was trying to do. I wasn't suggesting that we fly to Paris for the weekend. I just thought it might be nice to have a conversation." From there, it just went downhill.

In hindsight, I suppose I was hoping for something like the little twirl that my first wife did 26 years ago when I looked her up two years after first meeting. Kelly twirled alright, but she was swinging a mace when she did. :-{ I could have carried that memory of last September forever, and enjoyed it.

I had left the office feeling like the world was full of promise and ready to take it on. I left the restaurant feeling like I needed to find a hole and crawl into it. I pride myself on having a pretty thick skin, a fairly unassailable ego. Maybe not so much. I can't remember ever, in my life, having been shot down so thoroughly, or having felt so bad afterward. Maybe it was because of the magnitude of the difference between the reception I expected/hoped for and the one I got. Maybe it was the pure shock of having misread something so, so badly. One thing I certainly took away: I'll think long and hard before lifting the dome on a dream or a memory in the future.

And the next time a cute girl behind the bar asks my name, I think it's gonna be Bob . . . just to be on the safe side.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Dreams of Ivory; "Never" as Second Best

The thing about remembered opportunity, even missed, is that it remains opportunity. One forgets that unrealized potential is the only kind there is--full of hope, still available for a daydream or two.

Harsh lesson today. Beside the trite "nothing ventured, nothing gained," I need to mount a reminder from the classics:

Dreams surely are difficult, confusing, and not everything in them is brought to pass for mankind. For fleeting dreams have two gates: one is fashioned of horn and one of ivory. Those which pass through the one of sawn ivory are deceptive, bringing tidings which come to nought, but those which issue from the one of polished horn bring true results when a mortal sees them.
--- Homer (800 BC - 700 BC), The Odyssey
I had a moment, frozen in time, that brought me smiles now and then, just to think of it, just to remember. It was like the rose beneath the glass dome in Beauty and the Beast, except that it never lost a petal. Tonight I lifted that dome. Bad call. The rose did more than wilt before my eyes. It somehow turned away, quite intentionally, leaving nothing but thorns faced my way.

If I had even thought that a possibility, I would simply have left it alone. I could have gone to my grave with more joy from the remembered potential than regret at never having acted. Reality robbed even the memory of its enchantment.

So, "now or never" has new meaning to me. Once the focus was all on now, a prod to action in the moment. Henceforth, the never will be equally laden, a reminder that, now having passed, never is a good second best, for some dreams won't bear assaying.

Ron Jeremy Does Colorado College

I attended that debate tonight with a friend from our English department. We made a little bet earlier about what the demographics of the audience would be. He thought more men; I thought more women. The debate over porn is frequently cast as a women's issue, I figured. In the end, it was about even. The house was packed. I attended a talk by Michael Pollan in this same chapel back in February that had only half so large a crowd. Tonight's was overflowing. Chairs outside on the lawn and speakers to pipe the debate out to them. Folks all along the walls.

I've not enough time tonight to sum up the evening. Suffice it to say it was interesting. Instead, I'll offer the saddest thing I heard and the funniest. And I'll point out that, oddly, when the time came for questions, it was the men who thanked Craig Gross (whose anti-porn site is here) and took Ron Jeremy to task; and it was the women who thanked Ron Jeremy and took Craig Gross to task. That, I did not expect.

Saddest thing I heard: Ron Jeremy responding to whether he's ever been in an intimate relationship (meaning romantic). "I've made love five times in my life. I've had sex considerably more."

Funniest thing I heard: A female questioner wanting to know if Jeremy thought he could be in a long term relationship with just one person (i.e., monogamous). "Could you ever see yourself in a long term monotonous relationship." "No, and that's why."

He did qualify that though, to point out that there is such a thing as emotional monogamy, and that, he does believe in.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

See Off This Mountain, Part 3

The following is the third and final part of a serialized work of creative nonfiction. As it was once a single whole, the pieces are meant to be read in order. You can find Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.

It was inspired, somewhat, by a piece of music by South Carolina-born singer-songwriter Edwin McCain. Again, if you're interested in hearing the music, you'll find it here.

“Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.”
-- William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

See Off This Mountain (pt 3)

(a memory evoked by the music and lyrics of Edwin McCain)

Continued from Part 2.

The next day I don’t mention this new knowledge to my parents. Instead, I drive first to the cemetery behind Bethpage Methodist Church and find my grandparents graves. A single headstone. February 24th 1960. February 24th 1983. Twenty-three years to the day. Then I recall that my father’s mother also passed away on that day and I make a mental note to take special care on that day in the future. From the gravesite I drive to the offices of the Kannapolis Daily Independent. I explain that I’m doing research on my family and ask if it’s possible to see the newspaper’s archives for February 1960. A kind clerk leads me to a microfilm machine, opens a drawer in a nearby cabinet, pulls out a yellow box and hands it to me. “Do you know how to work this thing?” I assure him that I do and he leaves me with, “Just leave the film in the box beside the machine when you finish.”

I begin two weeks prior to the 24th, stopping to peruse the headlines of the front page of each day. “Cannon Farm Road to Get New Bridge.” “Mill to Open Second Monroe Plant.” “Union Bid Fails Again.” When I come to the 25th, I am more thorough. I want to know what it would have been like to read that paper. I remember that I was a mere five months and five days old. Not until I see the story’s headline, top left corner of page A4, do I allow the truth of what Marty revealed to solidify. “Wife of Enochville Grocer Shoots Self.” The article is short, to the point. The Independent has no machine from which to print a photocopy of the microfilm. No, they are sorry, but they can’t let me take the reel to the university library in Charlotte. I copy it, by hand, to a sheet of notebook paper. I thank them for their courtesy and depart. That night, I stand in my old bedroom at my parents home. I look out the window, across Enochville Avenue to my grandfather’s house now rented to someone by my mother, up at the stars, and for the first time, I sob uncontrollably over the grandmother who knew my infant self, but deprived me of the chance to know her. My mother had been 24 years old for just one month and one day when it happened, two years younger than I am now. I try to imagine what it must have been like for her.

If I could see off this mountain
Through the clouds in my eyes
I would see off this mountain
On the night the stars fell

In 1979, during the summer between my sophomore and junior years in college, a friend from Colorado Springs flew home with me for the summer. As a double date, we made a day trip to the mountains with an old girlfriend of mine, home for the summer from Wake Forest, and a friend of hers. We picnicked in the front yard of Deer Haven on a blanket at the base of the stone steps. We hiked to the head of Linville Gorge and looked out over the falls. In my one photo album, assembled before I began piling photographs in shoeboxes, themselves piled on a shelf in my closet, there is a picture of Lisa, Jon, and Samantha perched on the edge of the wall overlooking the gorge. We ran back down the trail through a sudden summer downpour, Jon and I laughing, Sam and Lisa squealing because one—I can’t remember which—was sure we were about to be struck by lightning. Going home, we took the road that runs through the valley at the base of Grandfather Mountain, pulling over at one point, to park and recline on the hood of Lisa’s car to watch the hangliders soaring over the valley.

Before Scott started flying, building, and selling Pterodactyl ultralights, he used to hanglide from Grandfather Mountain. He was, therefore, a member of The Order of the Raven.

And see off this mountain
Through the tears in my eyes
I would see off this mountain
And the stars fell from the skies

I got to fly one of Scott’s Pterodactyl’s once. It was the day after I used a set of pliers and wire-cutters to remove what was left of my Tomcat from a stand of woods separating a farmer's two fields. I’d piled it in the back of my father's Chevrolet pickup at the wood’s edge and thanked the farmer once more for not calling the FAA nor the newspapers. Just the day before, I had been the lone Tomcat flying with seven Pterodactyls from Scott’s airfield, destined for the parking lot at Carolina Mall in Concord. On the way, we'd set down in that fateful field to survey it. One of the other pilots was going to lease it from the farmer to use as an airfield closer to home. The seven Pterodactyl's, built with large diameter tricycle tires, had no problem navigating the almost knee-high barley that was only thinly planted in the corner Dave planned to use as an airstrip. The Tomcat, sitting much closer to the ground on bouncy lawnmower tires, was another story. I came to a quick stop as both the guy wires for the leading canard and the main gear struts brushed through the green stalks. I began to wonder right away if I would get airborne again.

After the seven of us had looked around, seen the spot where Dave planned to erect a hanger of sorts and admired the evenness of the terrain, we decided to get back into the air while there was still enough daylight to get to the mall and back. The best course, I decided, was to let the other seven take off first and wear the barley down a little more. As the last Pterodactyl lifted off, I said just a short prayer, and pushed the throttle to the wall. I gained speed quickly enough at first, where the barley was thinnest, but it grew thicker as I went, and the barbed wire fence at the far end wasn’t all that far away anymore. I was just about to pull the throttle back and resign myself to another try when the nose lifted out of the barley and I was airborne. Airborne, but instantly in a slight left turn. The left gear had drug in the barley just long enough to create a slight yaw, enough to induce about a ten-degree left bank. Now, in an aircraft with three-axis controls (a rudder, ailerons, and an elevator), that wouldn’t have been a problem. But the Tomcat was controlled entirely by the canard mounted some six feet ahead of me at the end of a four-inch diameter main fuselage. My fiberglass bucket seat was mounted directly to that fuselage. The main wing structure and engine tower were all behind me. There were no wires or frame around me. My feet rested on an eighteen-inch-long, one-inch diameter tube riveted to the bottom of the main fuselage in front of me. Flying the Tomcat resembled nothing so much as riding a broom. Nothing but a seatbelt between the pilot and the wild blue yonder. I loved it. But, because the canard was the only moveable control surface, there was about a one-second delay between any control input and an actual turn. Tilting the canard left or right pulled the nose around and created yaw. The forward wing developed more lift and induced bank, resulting in a turn. All of this happened within a second or so, but that short delay caused new Tomcat pilots to over-control somewhat at first. I was a new Tomcat pilot, and I’d made that mistake a couple of times already, but well above the ground, where there was plenty of time to sort things out. You would be surprised just how fast your mind can work when an aircraft does something unexpected on takeoff. I weighed the risks of over-controlling near the ground, and mentally calculated the distance to the fifty or sixty-foot-tall trees along the left side of the runway, factored in the shallowness of the turn I was in, and decided that I had the climb gradient to get over them. I only lacked about three feet being right.

Golf, bowling, and flying have at least one thing in common: men tend to talk to an aircraft the same way they talk to a golf ball or bowling ball. “Climb baby, climb baby, climb!” Actually, these sports may have a second thing in common: golf balls, bowling balls, and aircraft are similarly unaffected by these pleas. The low wing clipped the treetops. I cartwheeled once across the roof of the forest before the propeller bit into the tops of the trees and the sound of the engine was replaced by the sound of tearing sailcloth, splintering wood, and bending aluminum. The thought that I might be about to die, if it came, was so fleeting that I don’t remember it. What I do remember was mentally replaying the scene from First Blood in which Sylvester Stallone’s character jumps off a cliff into the top of a pine forest, spreading his arms, and depending on the branches to break his fall. They broke that and a few ribs. Hollywood though that may have been, I remember thinking, "maybe the wings will hang in these branches enough to slow my fall or maybe stop it altogether." And I remember thinking, as I came down, hanging upside down and watching the trunk of a tree go by and by and by, that they were slowing it enough. The chest mounted parachute I was wearing, on loan from Scott, protected my chest from what broken branches might have been a threat. At the end, the engine tower, it turns out, was about two inches taller than my head. I came to rest with a jolt, hanging in the seat, upside down, with my helmet just two inches off the ground. I had a tiny scratch across one cheek. There is something to be said even for short prayers.

None of the Pterodactyl pilots even missed me until after they landed at the mall. A stranger, one of several who lived nearby and had seen the eight of us circling into the field and driven over to see the aircraft, gave me a ride back to Huntersville. That trip, I don’t remember. Physically, I had a single scratch. Emotionally, I was grappling with the fact that my venture into homebuilt aviation hadn’t fared much better than my venture into matrimony.

When the kind gentleman dropped me off, Scott was at the field, tying things down for the night. He listened while I explained what had happened, then surprised me as much as anyone ever has with what he said next. “What you need to do is come back here tomorrow afternoon, after you get the pieces out of the trees, and fly my Pterodactyl.”

"That's pretty brave," I said, "considering what I just did to my Tomcat."

He just smiled. Scott was the only person, other than me, who had ever flown my ultralight. I’d invited him do so on the very first day I’d brought it to the field on a trailer. "Anyone who could fly that thing,” he smiled, "can fly one of these with his eyes closed."

I did. It was fun, but I still preferred the openness of mine to the web of aluminum tubing that surrounded the cockpit of the Pterodactyl.

In the air I hear a fiddle
Down along Hickory Way
And the mandolin guitar
Like we used to play

About a month later, Scott was flying from our Huntersville field down to the Carowinds amusement park. His flight path took him well east of Charlotte's Douglas International Airport. But we always flew fairly high, so that the huge parachute we carried would have time to deploy in the unlikely event of a catastrophic airframe failure (they were designed to bring down both craft and pilot). At 9:00 a.m., according to FAA tapes, an Eastern Airlines 727 called Douglas tower and asked if they could see "one of those powered gliders out here on final? We just had a pretty near miss with one. I expect it shook him up a bit."

And down on Dunn's rock
Brothers boasting a dare
We tell them they're crazy
And pretend we don't care

During the Cold War, I spent eight years flying in Boeing KC-135 “Stratotankers,” four-engine jet refueling platforms from which the civilian 707 was developed. We used to practice “minimum interval takeoffs,” launching four or eight heavy aircraft from a single runway a mere twelve seconds apart, practicing for the occasionally all too real possibility that the Cold War might turn hot. We flew preset headings designed to minimize the likelihood of one heavy jet flying through the wake turbulence of those before it. Wake turbulence is the deceptively benign term for the small horizontal tornados that flow off the wingtips of a large, heavy aircraft. They tend to spread down and away from the wingtips, somewhat like the waves that follow a boat on the water. They dissipate with distance, growing in diameter and lessening in velocity until they simply exist no more. But, like young venomous snakes whose bite is reputed to be more deadly than the adults’, they are a dangerous, invisible, and deadly force in their infancy, and the heavier the aircraft and greater the loading of the wings, the stronger they are. I’ve seen a 200,000 pound aircraft roll suddenly into thirty degrees of bank or more in their grip. An ultralight, by definition, weighs less than 350 pounds, engine, frame, sails, and all. If the Eastern flight took any evasive action, pulling up, or turning, thus loading the wings even more, the vortices would have been stronger still, only ten, maybe twenty feet in diameter and rotating at over 200 miles per hour. This, they knew, when they said they had probably shaken Scott up a bit. Imagine a paper crane in a blender.

An ultralight, in 1983, was still a rare enough site that there was hardly a moment someone on the ground wasn’t watching as you flew by. The police report said that witnesses saw the big jet go right over the little glider, and then Scott's wings just "folded up like paper." They saw him deploy the parachute that he wore on his chest, but the broken, twisted wings caused the craft to spin, "like a maple seed," and the chute became tangled in what was already wreckage before it ever returned to earth. Scott, and his crippled Pterodactyl, impacted the ground at 9:01 a.m.

If I could see off this mountain
Through the clouds in my eyes
I would see off this mountain
On the night the stars fell
And see off this mountain
Through the tears in my eyes
I would see off this mountain
And the stars fell from the skies

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that there was no connection between what the Eastern flight reported and Scott's crash. As for what the witnesses saw, they attributed it to "an illusion of parallax." As a result, I haven't put much stock in anything the NTSB reported since.

I don't think Scott felt any pain at the end, but he had way too long to think about what was coming on the way down. I was on Alert (seven consecutive days living at the end of a runway, ready to fly away in less than the time from launch warning to impact of a Soviet warhead) at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base when I got the call just before dinner. Sharon called. I don’t know how, but she did. She could barely speak. Nor could I. Nor could I leave and make the drive to Huntersville to comfort her. “Not family. Not authorized. Sorry.”

The following weekend, on "C-square" (Combat Crew Rest and Recuperation) I did go home though. And that Saturday, I coached our group of flyers on how to create a missing man formation. Standing at Sharon’s side, at the end of the field where Scott and I had both flown one another’s aircraft, I watched a set of five Pterodactyls pass over the field at 200 feet, saw the left slot pull up and out, and per Sharon's wishes, scatter Scott's ashes over the field that had utterly revolved around him.

And the mist tastes like moonshine
In the wind a carnival tune
It soars with our laughter
But we'll all leave too soon

Raven Lambert was born two months later. I last saw Sharon and her daughter in their apartment in Charlotte, some time in 1984. I took them to dinner. It will seem presumptuous to say this, but it was one of those rare times when I wished to God that I could clone myself. I've since lost track of them. That is a source of sadness now so profound that no words can describe it. I understand though, how it happened. And I know that Sharon, because she could look through me, understands as well. It was all that I could do to walk away that night. I couldn’t have done it more than once, and I had, I thought, another life yet to live, a different destiny to fulfill. What are we to make of those choices, those moments in time when two roads lie before us, equally vivid, equally appealing? One marriage of remarkable brevity, one ultralight, and one Spitfire (totaled just 13 days after the crash of the Tomcat) behind me, I chose, for once in my life, what seemed the prudent course.

So I raise a toast to family
Put thanks in my glass
In the arms of your loved ones
It's the only home that lasts

If I could see off this mountain
Through the clouds in my eyes
I would see off this mountain
On the night the stars fell
And see off this mountain
Through the years in my life
I would see off this mountain
When the stars fell from the skies

The song "See Off This Mountain" by Edwin McCain (c) 1999, is in blue throughout.

Don't ask for much. Ask for it all.

From Shakespeare in Love:

Viola De Lesseps: [to her Nurse] I will have poetry in my life. And adventure. And love. Love above all. No... not the artful postures of love, not playful and poetical games of love for the amusement of an evening, but love that... over-throws life. Unbiddable, ungovernable - like a riot in the heart, and nothing to be done, come ruin or rapture. Love - like there has never been in a play.
Formatting the third and final part of See Off This Mountain. Bear with me.

Today's News

A couple of interesting bits from today's Gazette:

First, I know what I'm doing on Thursday night. First, I'm a guy. Second, I was in the Strategic Air Command, back when we pulled alert, sitting at the end of a runway, in a bunker, baby-sitting an aircraft for seven days at a time--I've seen a "hydraulic training film" or two. This will be worth listening too. The questions from a crowd of college students and others in this town, even more so.

“THE GREAT PORN DEBATE”: With Ron Jeremy and Craig Gross, 7 p.m., Colorado College, Shove Memorial Chapel, 1010 N. Nevada Ave., free; 389-6606 or 389-6607.

The second article I'll tag as an incidence of mild convergence. Following my post titled "Hang in there," on Monday, Phil posted a comment regarding a similar experience with emoticons. Turns out that, according to today's news, this is the 25th anniversary of the birth of the smiley face and every permutation of emotive punctuation that has followed since.
Twenty-five years ago, Carnegie Mellon University professor Scott Fahlman says, he was the first to use three keystrokes — a colon followed by a hyphen and a parenthesis — as a horizontal “smiley face” in a computer message.

Somehow, knowing that I share a birthday with the ur emoticon explains a whole lot.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

See Off This Mountain, Part 2

The following is Part 2 of a serialized work of creative nonfiction. As it was once a single whole, the pieces are meant to be read in order. You can find Part 1 here, and Part 3 here.

It was inspired, somewhat, by a piece of music by South Carolina-born singer-songwriter Edwin McCain. If you're interested in hearing the music, you'll find it here.

“Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.”
-- William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

See Off This Mountain (pt 2)

(a memory evoked by the music and lyrics of Edwin McCain)

Continued from Part 1.
During my grandfather’s life and our childhood, every Sunday night saw my mother walk my two younger sisters and me across Enochville Avenue to his house, where the smell of Banquet fried chicken, or Banquet roast beef, or a Swanson Turkey TV dinner met us as soon as we entered the door. This was supper, every Sunday, without fail. TV dinners on TV trays, watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and then The Wonderful World of Disney. The 36-inch console color television sat at one end of the rectangular room, capped by the dial which rotated the antenna on top of the house. Grandpa sat at the other end, directly beneath an ornately framed twenty-four by thirty-six inch portrait of my captivatingly beautiful grandmother. Along the two longer walls, on Naugahyde couches, were arranged the venerable old man’s progeny: three grandchildren and his only child, my mother, who inherited both her mother’s beauty and its curse.

Grandpa never said more than five or six sentences during any Sunday evening visit. “There’s more chicken in there.” “There’s ice cream [small cups, chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, wooden spoons wrapped in paper] in the freezer.” “Take some of those Reese’s Cups home with you.” “Don’t you want a Hershey Bar?” He was never senile. Nor was he ever weak. Six foot five and gangly, but solid as a rock. When I think of him, walking around the store, left hand in pocket jingling change, he seems so long-legged to me now that he emerges in my memory as the man on stilts at Mardi Gras. I never saw him smoke, but neighbors have told me that he used to shovel the butts out from behind the counter at the store, literally, shovel. Then, sometime before I was born, a doctor told him that he wouldn’t live beyond another year if he didn’t give up smoking. Grandpa said he’d get things in order then, because he knew he couldn’t give up cigarettes. The doctor replied with six words: “If you’re a man you can.” Vastine threw what was left of the pack in his pocket in the doctor’s trash can and never touched another.

He was strong enough to live on until the winter I completed my ultralight, but not long enough to see it fly. He would not come into the basement of the store to see it under construction. It would be another two and a half years before I would understand why. He lived on, but he did so as a walking ghost. His mind was all there, but he was not. He was as sealed off from me and my sisters and all the world as the tightest tomb of the pharaohs. That he loved us, we never doubted, for he opened to us the coffers he had closed to my mother and her mother, Deer Haven notwithstanding. There was no gift he would not have bought us for the asking. But we never asked, for they came faster than our awareness of desire. A second cabin on Lake Norman, a ski boat, a boat house, skis, a diving board mounted to the pier, all he said he bought for his grandchildren. Soon after he bought it, we named it “The Getaway,” and the appropriate routed and burned wooden plaque appeared shortly thereafter at the turnoff from the paved road. After 1965, we spent every weekend there, from Friday night until Sunday afternoon, when we would return to supper at his house. He himself came to that cabin not a dozen times in as many years. He preferred solitude.

He “retired” from the store after another doctor told him that if he didn’t get off his legs and stay off them, he wouldn’t last that year either. Somewhat grudgingly, he complied. His days, became a rotation from bedroom, to the chair beneath my grandmother’s portrait, to the kitchen where he lived on canned soup and toast with butter and apple jelly, back to the chair beneath the portrait. What did he watch on that TV all day? Did he have favorite soaps? What did he see in that room when no one else was there? How did he stand even being there? How was he able to keep walking through that front door after coming home for lunch from the store that February day in 1960? God himself is more merciful on the damned. All I ever knew was that Grandma had died before my first birthday. Not until I was twenty-seven, and my grandfather, whose quiet retreat into himself I had never been perceptive enough even to try to understand, had been dead himself for some three years, did I learn that my grandmother had taken her own life by putting a bullet through her heart. And it was by accident that I learned this fact even then.

Shortly after I moved from Goldsboro, North Carolina, to Merced, California, in 1985, I came home to my apartment from an eight-hour flight and debriefing to find a message on my answering machine. My father’s voice, more tired and defeated than ever I had heard it. “Chris . . .“ That single salutation and then a long pause during which I hypothesized the death of my mother and each of my sisters in turn. “This is your father . . .“ Well no shit, Dad! And then another long pause, during which I fumbled to get the desk chair beneath me as my knees gave way and hypothesis congealed to certainty and a single death grew to some catastrophic accident that had left him and me alone in the world. “Someone broke into the store two nights ago, and the bastards burned the thing down.” Hallelujah!

My father had been awake for over 48 hours when he made that call, so I forgave him for killing and then resurrecting everyone dear to us both. A day later, after a long and well-earned sleep, he began the task of sorting through the ashes of what had been our family’s livelihood for two generations. He began by himself, a single man with a shovel, clearing away all that had burned, which was, in fact, everything but the brick walls. Within two hours there were no less than forty people with shovels at work in those ashes. By the day’s end, Bill Durham had driven an eighteen-wheeler into our yard, backed a front-end loader and backhoe off a trailer and said simply, “Let me know when you’re done with ‘em.” Within two months, the store would be rebuilt, though only a single story tall now. When I came home on leave from California months later, Dal’s Bread & Bolts was not only open again, they had added a grill and dairy bar.

During that leave, I agreed to ride to Charlotte one night with my much older cousin, Marty, pilot, drag racer, car dealer, occasional Special Agent for the State Bureau of Investigation, and all around good ol’ boy. Sitting in the lounge at a Holiday Inn on the north side of the Queen City, I was sipping Scotch and soda to Marty’s Jack Daniels and listening to him brag about the damage he had done to one of the druggies who’d broken into the store. The poor sap and his partner had had the forethought to set the place on fire to hide the fact that they’d broken in, but then for some reason, while one ended up hiding in the knee-deep poison oak that filled the gully behind the store, the second, disoriented by the smoke or by his own drug-induced haze, ended up cowering in a corner of the hardware section, where Marty found him as he swept through trying to find the source of the blaze.

“I just said ‘Well, come on fella, let’s go,’ and would you believe that sumbitch took a swing at me? I just took that six volt lantern and whopped him right square on the top of his damn head, then picked him up off the floor by his collar and his belt and started haulin’ his limp ass out of there. About the time I get to the nail bin, sumbitch wakes up and starts swingin’ at me, while I’m carryin’ him. I just swung backwards with him and plowed his face into a tray. When I stood him up, there was roofing nail hanging from his cheek right here and I just thought, ‘What the hell’ and so I hauled off and drove it on in for him.”

As Marty is telling this story, I’m thinking this has to be the umpteenth time that his newest wife, bleached blond and chain-smoking-thin Luann has heard it, but I sense she’s not so much listening to him as studying me to gauge the reaction of the family fly-boy, home from California for a visit.

“So I pick the bastard up again and start toward the door and this time when he starts swingin’ at me I’m standing beside all the glass scraps your Dad leans up against the wall by the glass cutter, so I rare back again and swing his face through about six plates of odds and ends. When I drop his sorry ass that time he stumbles up and there’s a whole flap of his face from one corner of his mouth around to this ear sort of hanging off and I said, ‘Alright fella listen. I’m not gonna carry your ass one more inch out of this store. You're gonna walk out, and I swear to God, if you swing at me one more time, I’ll flat kill you right where you stand.’”

Were it anyone but Marty I would think this exaggeration, but it is Marty and I know him well enough to know he’s probably holding back, if anything.

“So I get this asshole outside and your dad says to me, ‘I’ve got to get one more thing. I’ll be right back.’ And by this time it’s not just smoke pouring out of the upstairs windows anymore, it’s fire, and I mean the parking lot was lit up like day and it was startin’ to get pretty warm. Do you want to guess what he comes carryin’ out of there?”

“I can’t imagine,” I say, honestly.

“He crawled all the way back to the safe and comes back out carrying two things: the money bag and that .32 revolver.”

“Jesus!” I say. “It’s a fireproof safe. Why didn’t he just leave it to dig out the next day? And what the hell is so special about that gun anyway.”

“Don’t you know?”

“He always told me it he brought it back from Alaska when he got out of the Army. I thought maybe it was the only thing in his life he ever stole.”

Marty stares at me incredulously. “Son, that’s the pistol your grandma shot herself with.”

Silence. Then, “Uh oh.” Then, “You didn’t know.” This is not a question.

“Grandma Smith?” I say.

“Oh shit,” says Marty, and for the first time I can remember in two decades, I see my cousin at a loss for words.

“It’s okay, Marty,” I reassure him.

“I will just be damned. You’re kiddin’ me. You didn’t know at all, did you? Not just about the gun, I mean, you really didn’t know. Shit! I’m sorry, man. Christ! I’m really sorry.”

“Really. It’s okay. It’s time, I guess. I can’t believe they kept it a secret all these years.” I’m no longer looking at him now but at the suddenly too small glass of Scotch in my hand.

“Damn I’m sorry,” says Marty, quiet now. He tosses back what’s left of his Jack Daniels, picks up Luann’s from the table and tosses it back too. “Damn it. Just damn it all to hell.”

Concluded in Part 3, here.

Monday, September 17, 2007

See Off This Mountain, Pt 1

My life seems to be a sine wave that runs in seven-year cycles.

Back in 2001, I spent a long evening on a piece of creative non-fiction. For hours, Edwin McCain's See Off This Mountain poured through the headset (sleep wasn't really an option), drowning out even the clicking of the keys. I'll give this song second place behind Adagio for Strings in terms of evocative capability for me.

I would be selling the story short, I hope, if I said you need to know the song to understand the story. You don't. But, in my mind, the two are intertwined in a symbiotic way. The song more special to me because of the memories; the memories that much stronger with the music in the background. If you're interested, you can play the song here. Or, if you're not familiar with Edwin McCain, but are willing to trust me, you can get the album, Messenger, here. If we share any tastes at all (and we must, or you wouldn't be here) you won't regret it.

Because the piece is long, I'm going to break it up over several posts.


“Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.”
-- William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

See Off This Mountain

(a memory evoked by the music and lyrics of Edwin McCain)
If I could see off this mountain
Through the clouds in my eyes
I would see off this mountain
On the night the stars fell
And see off this mountain
Through the tears in my eyes
I would see off this mountain
And the stars fell from the skies

In 1983, I was flying my Waspair Tomcat ultralight out of a little grass strip maintained by another flyer, who quickly became a friend. His name was Scott Lambert. His wife was Sharon. She was a schoolteacher. They were the kind of people you liked instantly—open, genuine, confident, and giving. Scott was handsome and soft-spoken, with dark, wavy hair. I can hear his voice to this day. Sharon was the sort of healthy, sensible good looking that gets even better with the passing of time. She had eyes that looked right through to your heart and put you at ease. Sharon and Scott were each in their late twenties I guess, and Sharon was about four months pregnant with their first child, and glowing, when I met her on the front porch of their small home on Main Street in Huntersville, North Carolina. She led me down the steps, around the side of the house, and out to Scott, who was working on the frame of a new ultralight in their detached garage/shop.

She's a Blue Ridge cradle
She's a mother to some
And home to the laughter
Of road weary ones

It was the ultralights that brought me to Huntersville, and to Scott and Sharon. I’d spent the better part of most weekends the winter of 1982-83 building mine, one pop-rivet at a time, in the basement of my father’s, once my maternal grandfather’s, general store. Therapy, somewhat, for a marriage the winter before that had lasted all of three weeks from wedding to separation—but that’s another story, a very short story. I suppose, after that, that I’d needed to prove I could put something together that would fly.

Having built it, I needed somewhere to fly it, and it was that search that somehow led me—though I no longer remember how—to Scott. I may not remember how I ended up there, but I remember that day. I remember driving into the small town in my Spitfire with the rag top down, and noticing the dogwoods in bloom on Main Street. I remember the sunlight filtering through spring green elms and oaks older than the town itself. I remember the azaleas in bloom along the walk that led from the gravel drive to the porch, and the dappled sunlight on the white house, and climbing the steps to the porch. I remember knocking on the doorframe and calling through the screen door was anyone home, hearing Sharon’s voice from somewhere within the house, and then her standing there, holding open that screen door and looking through me and not even waiting for an introduction before she smiled and said, “You’re here to see Scott.”
So we'll sing all the old songs
Sing to grandmama road
And we'll sing cause we miss her
And we're sad she had to go

Early in my childhood, my family used to make weekend trips to my maternal grandfather’s mountain cabin in Ginger Cake Acres, near Linville, North Carolina. Grandpa Smith lived right across the street from us in Enochville. Dal’s Bread & Bolts, formerly E.V. Smith’s Grocery, the store whose basement became the workshop for the construction of my ultralight, had been opened by my grandfather before the Great Depression. It was during those indiscriminately lean years, when “Slim” Smith fed an entire community on faith that someday those signatures on credit slips would be worth something, that the store became the center of our small town.

It was the classic General Store, having grown over the years from its modest beginnings as a cigarette stand on the opposite corner of the crossroads, to a two story brick building with bright red, white, and blue Esso, then Exxon, gas pumps in front, hardware to the left as you came in the front door, groceries in the middle, a butcher shop in the back, clothing and other staples on the right, and four separate apartments upstairs. It served as surrogate post office for more than a dozen households within a quarter mile radius whose mail sat in a common box until they filed through it to collect what belonged to them. It was during and following that depression, collecting land in payment for sometimes years of credit receipts—some accounts were stacked an inch thick behind their steel springs in the multi-paneled cabinet beside the register—that Emmanuel Vastine Smith became the largest landowner in our corner of the county.

I was barely 10 years old when I began working at the store. I swept the floors, filled the drink machines, transferred eggs from the six-cubic-foot boxes they arrived in to the cardboard, dozen-egg boxes in which they would be sold. I pumped gas with my ear leaned to the nozzle to hear the gurgle of an almost full tank and never spilled a drop, long before automatic shutoffs existed. I ground hamburger into the large trays and later weighed it out according to the customer’s request, ran the cuts for what I learned a dozen years later to call “country-fried steak” through the cubing machine, dipped oysters (“Standard or Select?”) from gallon tins into pint and half pint cardboards. When Dave Kinnerly commented that they looked good enough to eat raw I served him an oyster big enough to fill a half cup measure on the cardboard lid of a pint container and watched in disbelief as he slurped it down—an event I remembered with a smile as my copilot and I finished off our third dozen each a decade later at a squadron dining out. I sliced bologna and “lunch meat” (known as spiced ham—I later learned—outside our small corner of the world) from long paper wrapped tubes. I scraped the pasty bone dust off T-bones fresh from the band saw, and swept clean and spread new sawdust on the floor each day after school.

The basement of the store had been, for a short while, a separate endeavor, run by my grandmother, then still a young woman. I built that ultralight surrounded by remnants of a small business untouched twenty-four years after her death: wrapping paper, card racks, an empty cash register, small receipt pads with gray top copies backed with purple carbon and yellow customer copies. “Mary’s” was the only name I ever heard given that portion of the business.

The mountain cabin, named Deer Haven by that Mary, was something Vastine had built for her—a place to take her when she became too homesick for the mountains where she grew up. There was Cherokee in her blood, but you would never have known it to look at her (or photographs of her, which are all I ever saw with eyes that could remember). Not so her mother, my great-grandmother, whose high cheekbones hinted at her heritage, but whose Native American blood was entirely overwhelmed by a peculiar brand of Scotch-Irish bitterness that I’ve no expectation of seeing surpassed in this lifetime. It was Great-Grandma Ada who taught me, at ten, a lesson in the meaning of self-contradiction I’ve laughed about for three decades now. Our Lutheran pastor’s son, a few years my junior, was somewhat special. Special enough to have taken an older boy’s 410 shotgun one day and used it to pepper cars as they passed on Spring Garden Street. When I commented on Brad’s particular form of “special” in less politically correct terms, my great grandmother turned on me with a venom in her voice that to this day summons more fear in me than pity, and said with a wagging finger, “The Bible says ‘Thou shalt not judge others,’ you servant of the devil!”

Beneath the kitchen window of Deer Haven, on ground so thick with moss that it gave underfoot like a waterbed, in a clearing encompassed by laurel and rhododendron, Ada's only daughter, Mary Wyles Smith, put salt licks for the deer, and they would come, and she would watch. But it wasn’t enough. Barely five months after I, her first grandchild, was born, she became too homesick for the last time.
Continued at Part 2, and concluded at Part 3.

Hang in There!

It's not a phrase that I've ever gotten bent out of shape about. But for the last eight years or more, neither has it been one that I could use without self-consciousness. That would be because one of my dearest friends did get bent out of shape about it, considered it a lame offering when one could think of nothing more helpful to say. So, for eight years, I've used it sparingly and never without cringing and never in the presence of that friend.

Today, that friend said it to me . . . and it felt good. It didn't feel lame. It didn't feel empty. It felt, actually, like good advice. "I got over it," she said, of her previous objections. (There was more, actually, but that's the gist.)

So, in celebration, I thought a little post was appropriate. I'd intended it to be just the picture, and the phrase, hyperlinked to an obtuse definition of the phrase from somewhere on the web. No such creature (go look and let me know if you find what I couldn't). Not on Wikipedia, the OED,, the Dictionary of Slang, etc. Nada.

Well, not nothing exactly. I found one page. A biblically-based defense of the phrase. I offer it here not to push religion on anyone. I prefer to take good advice wherever I can find it. So, the phrase for the day--this day at least--is simply,

The Air Up There

Spent most of the day on the ground at a dropzone, making it possible for a bunch of college kids to get some 150+ jumps today.

Spent the late afternoon reconnecting with an old friend, fellow composition teacher and McCarthy scholar, and meeting his wife and son.

Spent the evening correcting misimpressions from my frequently too vague hints at deeper meaning.

So, nothing for it tonight but to post a fun photo. That'll be me on the right, Aaron on the left, and my best friend John in the middle. We're approaching the first anniversary of that jump, so it seems an appropriate time to post the photo.

Deeper stuff another day.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

3:10 to Yuma

I'm tired, Alice. I'm tired of watching my boys go hungry. I'm tired of the way that they look at me. I'm tired of the way that you don't.

One thing Cormac McCarthy fans don't expect is to see a lot of women in his novels. (I know what you're thinking: "What has Cormac McCarthy got to do with 3:10 to Yuma?" Stay with me.) Take All the Pretty Horses, for instance (the book; not the movie). There's Alejandra and the duena Alfonsa. John Grady Cole's mother is a remembered presence, but not a character. Still, for all their absence, women drive men to action, set stories in motion (it is a she-wolf after all, that launches Billy across the border in The Crossing) and a girl that draws his younger brother irredeemably away. But in novels filled with men, doing "manly things," women have incidental, enabling presences, but beyond the duena, few have significant speaking roles.

I couldn't help but notice that this movie was much the same. The two leads, protagonist and antagonist, Dan Evans (Christian Bale) and Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), each owe finding themselves where they are in this movie to women. Ben lingers, unwisely, to make love to (one assumes) and then sketch Emmy Nelson (Vinessa Shaw). Her only role is as foil, to show us Ben's more tender and winning side, and then having lingered with her, he's captured, and she's gone. Nor do we notice her absence.

Dan is driven to his role as escort, ostensibly by an immediate need for money after a bad season has left him in debt and about to lose the ranch, but more profoundly by the quote that opens this post. It echoed in my mind throughout the rest of the movie. A man will only risk so much for money. But Dan believes he has already lost the most important things, the respect of his sons, the admiration of his wife. If he succeeds in this undertaking, he may earn enough money to save the ranch, but more importantly, he will win back those other things, without which, neither ranch nor life itself are worth drawing another day's breath.

I'll say no more about the plot, except that there are serious questions asked about the lines between good and evil, and one particular speech from Wade that might have come from Judge Holden himself, on the nature of man and moral law. Anyone who has read McCarthy's Blood Meridian, won't be able not to notice the echoes here. I've not seen the 1957 film (with Glenn Ford as Wade) nor read the original Elmore Leonard short story on which both films were based, but I will see the one and read the other. Influence interests me. And without having read Leonard's story nor seen the earlier film, it's impossible to know whether the story or film influenced McCarthy, or McCarthy influenced the modern screenwriters. But it is safe to say that those behind the making of the new film are well aware of McCarthy--the following little blurb is from the release notes in the Wikipedia entry on the new film:

3:10 to Yuma was originally slated for an October 5, 2007 release, but Lionsgate moved the film's release a month earlier to September 7, 2007 to beat competing Western filmsThe Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and No Country for Old Men.

I will be counting down the days to the release of No Country for Old Men. (There is a trailer available at the web site.)

Bottom line: see 3:10 to Yuma. It's well paced, well acted (I've never been a Peter Fonda fan, but this film could change my mind about even that), and well directed. Sure, there's a loose end or two, but it works nonetheless. A-/B+ at least.

Motorola Razr V3

I'd like to say I've never owned one of these. Unfortunately, my daughter has owned three--none of them for more than a month. The $5 a month I paid for insurance on her phone is probably going to be some of the best money I've ever spent.

On two, even with the phone set to ring, and with good reception, sometimes it would just sit there silently during an incoming call, not even vibrating. On a third, the camera stopped working.

On any of them, even if everything was working correctly, Verizon created rather unique problems through attempting to drive people to Verizon's proprietary software for handling photos. Verizon disables the photo processing portion of the Motorola Phone Tools that you can purchase for use with the Razr. And the Razr has no removable data card. Therefore, the only way to get photos from the phone to the computer, is to e-mail them or post them to Verizon's Pix Place. Problem is, if you take the photo at the highest resolution, you can end up with a file too large to do either, meaning, that photo is stuck on the phone. You can look at it there. Or you can delete it. That's all.

The fourth time she went in to exchange the phone (another one that would sometimes just not ring), Verizon finally agreed to give her a different phone--a Samsung. We've had four Samsungs in the family already. Each has lasted its full two years before trading in for an upgrade. Each has been a great phone.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Adagio for Strings

Just a little riff on the power of music.

Back in 1988, I was driving through the golden hills of the California Coastal Range in a 1975 Super Beetle convertible with the top down, headed from my house in central California down to the beach to spend the day in Carmel and Monterey. We were listening to classical music on a public station when they played Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings in G-minor. Waves of associational sadness poured over me. The music is sad enough in it's own right--quite honestly, the saddest music I know. But there was something more behind what I felt. I knew that the music had been used as soundtrack for some heartbreaking film I had seen in the previous few years.

I racked my brain to the coast and back. I bought a recording of the piece, and then racked my brain for a couple more years, seriously. Mentally, I ran through every tear-jerking movie I could think of from recent history, but I knew that none of those I could bring to mind were the movie that had so laden Barber's most famous composition for me.

Then, in 1991, I was studying for my comprehensive exams and writing my M.A. thesis at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. From my eight floor study carrel in the library, I had a view, out a narrow slit of a window, of the soccer practice fields, about a quarter to a third of a mile away. As I was watching out that window one afternoon, a lone figure ran across the field, headed away from me. The angle, the distance, the lone figure in retreat, created a pattern that brought to mind another such scene, this one from a movie.

A group of soldiers raids a village, a single villager has slipped out and is running away, crossing a bridge in the valley below, at about the same distance, angle, and speed as in the scene before me. A sergeant takes three shots with an M-16. A puff of dust rises from the villager's back as he falls. I can see the image, this image before me, that image in the movie, and in my head I can hear the violins that have haunted me for more than two years.

As I race down the stairs--eight stories of them--the movie continues in my head. Straw huts burn as the violins crescendo. In another scene, a lone soldier falls to his knees with his arms raised above his head as helicopters depart and his friends see him fall and the enemy advance on his body and through it all there is Barber. I run across the pit to the undergraduate library where the video collection is housed, retrieve the VHS tape, and hurry it into a machine in the nearest carrel. From beginning to end, from the moment Charlie Sheen walks down the ramp of a C-130 "in country" until he is airlifted out of the shards of an overrun base, there is one soundtrack that permeates Oliver Stone's Platoon. That soundtrack is Adagio for Strings. And finally, I have an answer to why hearing it is such a cathartic experience for me.

I saw Platoon on its opening night in Montgomery, Alabama. Six of us went together from the Squadron Officer's School at Maxwell Air Force Base. The only place where there were six seats together was the front row. When I saw the movie again, months later with my fiance, from somewhere in the middle of the theater, it was a completely different experience. From the front row, when a firefight began, the tracers flew from one side of the screen to the other, and you wanted an entrenching tool to dig your own foxhole. I've never liked the front row in a theater, but I had to admit, being there made Platoon the most intense movie I had seen since Deer Hunter, and seared into my mind its soundtrack, as the essence of sadness itself.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Different Sort of Remembrance

I've noticed that most of my friends around the blogosphere have been careful to mark, in one way or another, this sixth anniversary of the event that changed our lives more than any other thus far this century.

So, I offer this (originally posted as a comment over at Chap's place):

In terms of tributes and remembrances, I want to point out one that many people may not think of that way. It's a movie. I think it's an underappreciated movie. In fact, as I said in my own post back in June, it was then, and is still, the best movie I've seen this year. The movie is Reign Over Me. and here is what I had to say about it:

Want to know what you shouldn't miss? Reign Over Me. So far, for 2007, the best movie I've seen, and I saw most of the Academy Award Winners. First, Adam Sandler can act. If you didn't know that after Spanglish, you weren't paying attention. Second, there is not an emotion that Reign Over Me leaves untapped: anger, love, humor, happiness, passion, friendship, grief, and every other corner of your heart that I've not named. If there is a don't miss movie for this year, this is it. Critics gave it a C+. They gave Spiderman a B; same grade they gave Talladega Nights. See a pattern yet?

The DVD is scheduled for release on 10/9/07. If you missed it at the theaters, you owe it to yourself to see it soon thereafter. But be prepared for every emotion you felt six years ago to be as fresh as the day it was new.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Boys & Girls & Minefields

I recently reconnected with a longtime friend, but one with whom I'd lost touch. We were (or seemed, we're both now learning) more comfortable around one another than any other two people I know of opposite gender who find one another attractive. We were remarkably capable of interacting on, and moving fluidly through, a full spectrum of relationship levels without the usual stripping of mental/emotional gears, and subsequent stagnation at one level or another, that usually takes place in such inter-gender friendships. It has taken us a quarter-century to learn that neither of us was as nonchalant as we seemed to the other. That shouldn't be surprising. But the most remarkable thing about that, is that whatever trepidation we might either have felt at each beginning or shift in levels, the appearance of calm and comfort at the outset of each became reality with astonishing rapidity. That is, the successful concealment of gastrointestinal butterflies became their effectual banishment.

That learning though, that all was not as it initially appeared so long ago, has led us both to a better understanding of what our own children now face as they enter the frightening world of dating. From a mother's perspective, that realization reads like this:

Too often, perhaps we don't realize that the male partner in [a] relationship might be feeling a little insecure or completely intimidated as well. I have always, because of my own insecurities, assumed the complete comfort level of the guy. It is nice to realize now (through someone who should know how guys can feel) that my sons will be nervous, perhaps feel in over their heads, in deep water, etc. in their relationships sometimes. It sounds idiotic for me not to have been acutely aware of that, but they often seem so "overly-confident" now, that I forgot to realize that this may not be the case, and especially in matters of the heart.
It was that remark about sons seeming "so 'overly-confident'" that got me thinking about how the whole dynamic works. So, being a teacher, and firmly believing that the most effective instruction usually involves analogies (because it enables us to move from the old known to the new concept with more ease), my mind started making analogies as I read the message above. (That they are military analogies should come as no surprise to anyone. It is no accident that one of the best known cliches of all time firmly yokes love and war in relation to fairness.)

Here is the conclusion I reached: Relationships are like minefields, at least when we're young. No matter our sex, they are minefields pure and simple. Step wrongly, and you might not lose a leg from the knee down, but you'll sure lose your self-esteem. At the time, that seems even worse. So, we see them the same, whether we're a boy or a girl, but we react differently. That's where the hormones and hardwiring come in. (And that I can write a phrase like "hormones and hardwiring," in all seriousness and without reservation, hesitation, or guilt, goes a long way to explain why "politically correct" is a phrase seldom uttered in connection with my name.)

Women step carefully, gingerly, more slowly, but apparently methodically, because you're nervous and a little frightened about where to step next, but you believe it's probably worth the risk to get to the other side. Men watch that and mistake that deliberation for confidence and poise. It looks to us as though you know where to step next, know where you're going.

Men--because our dominant hormone is testosterone, and its dominant manifestation is action dammit!--run. We run, full tilt, across the minefield, with apparent abandon, because we're nervous and a little frightened and have little idea where to step next, but like you, believe it's probably worth the risk to get to the other side, and since we don't know where to step, one footfall is as risky as the next, and the faster we run, the more quickly it'll be over, dammit, whatever the result. Women watch that and mistake our speed for courage or confidence or both. It looks to you as though either the minefield doesn't concern us in the least (which leaves us open to accusations of insensitivity more often than courage), or else we know exactly where we're going and where to step in order to get there.

There are exceptions, of course. Any generalization invites exception. There are some confident men and women. And there are some men and women who recognize masculine bravado and feminine deliberateness for the charades they are. But I think, in general, the description above is useful in explaining both our sameness and our difference, on the very broad scale. Thus, like any generalization, it is useful only so long as you remember it is just that, a generalization.

Monday, September 10, 2007

My Life as a Comic Strip

I don't know how most people read the comics, but I read them looking for myself. And it's a fairly rare day that I'm not in there somewhere. Take today for example.

Today's Diesel Sweeties can't help but hit home for everyone who's ever gone so far as to actually post something to a blog they call their own.

Equally educational was today's Pickles. Everyone's heard the saying, "If you can't run with the big dogs, then don't get off the porch." But Pickles had a great twist on it today, especially if you're a married guy.

Life on the non-proverbial edge

I will have nightmares tonight.

There is nothing quite like taking your Jeep Grand Cherokee on its first no kidding 4-wheeling excursion along a road no wider than the Jeep itself and bordered on one side by rock and root and on the other by . . . air, and a long roll before the first tree might stop you, or might just cut the vehicle in half. "Oh, this is all pretty much just category 2," says my friend. "And they go to category what?" I ask. "Five." "[Deleted]! I don't ever want to see even a three."

I'm pretty sure my knuckles were white on the wheel, but I was just hoping my friend wouldn't notice and wasn't about to take my eyes off the road long enough to check. I kept going for two reasons. First, pride. Second, there was no where to turn around anyway. We gained a little over 2000 feet in three miles at just slightly more than a walking pace. It's the first, no kidding four-wheeling I've done in my Grand Cherokee. I had an Isuzu Trooper out on a similarly rough road that no two-wheel drive vehicle could have navigated, but that was up through a forest, not along the side of a fripping mountain.

I admitted to my friend later that I would never have even tried it without him along. He's got a couple decades of four-wheeling experience, so, I knew I could always just stop and put him behind the wheel. His presence gave me the courage to try something I'd never done before. All in all, the drive up to the radio towers at 11,200' on Mt Princeton is probably the thing I'll have flashbacks to for years.

There was so much more to this weekend--dinner at a Cantina on the way up, building a fire in the dark, shivering around it drinking 12-yr-old Dewars Special Reserve and smoking Fuente cigars, a full day on the Taylor River failing to outsmart the trout, but not caring too much thanks to the beauty of the scenery, and another day making a run at Mt Princeton before dark clouds over the summit made us turn back short (as the proverb goes in aviation, "It is always better to be down here wishing you were up there, than up there wishing you were down here").
But for now, I'm off to those old archetypal dreams of falling off a mountain. And because I skydive, people don't believe me when I tell them I'm afraid of heights.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Stay Tuned

Going fishing, mountain climbing, cigar smoking, and whiskey drinking with the guys this weekend. Check back on Monday.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Pass the Clairol

This post may lose me a few readers who have come to expect seriousness here. But . . . . My youngest daughter dyed her blond hair very dark brown last night. I now understand why.

Miss Teen USA 2007 - South Carolina answers a question

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Tuesday, September 4, 2007

War Lit

Rather than putting a hat tip at the end of this post, I need to say up front, I'd have missed this outstanding piece by Robert Kaplan in The Atlantic, if not for Chap.

It would ordinarily be enough to simply send you to it through Chap's Blog, but I want to capture a few quotes here before I send this post to friends of mine who are still doing the holy work of creating literate warriors and citizens. In particular, I think the man who taught an entire English department to think of what they do in that way would find himself nodding in agreement when Kaplan, speaking of Vice Admiral Stockdale's two books says:

When Stockdale writes about Epictetus, Socrates, Homer, Cervantes, Calvin, and other writers and philosophers, their work achieves a soaring reality because he relates them to his own, extraordinary experiences as a prisoner in one of the 20th century's most barbaric penal programs. Stockdale reminds us about something that much scholarship, with its obsession for textual subtleties, obscures: The real purpose of reading the classics is to develop courage and leadership.
Further, as half the cadet wing at that school (recently rated number one in its class in its region) where I spent eight years teaching, lives in a dorm named for Captain Lance Sijan, one or two of them might have some interest in reading another of the books Kaplan touches on:
The implications of "doing your duty" are spelled out further in Bury Us Upside Down: The Misty Pilots and the Secret Battle for the Ho Chi Minh Trail (Ballantine, 2006) by Rick Newman, a journalist at U.S. News & World Report, and Don Shepperd, a former Misty. They write that in November 1967, in order to rescue Captain Lance Sijan of Milwaukee, a smoke screen of cluster bombs was dropped near North Vietnamese anti-aircraft guns, so that the guns could be taken out by low-flying F-4 Phantoms, throwing enemy air defenses into enough chaos to allow a helicopter to pick up the downed pilot. The operation failed. Captain Sijan, injured worse than Bud Day during ejection, evaded the North Vietnamese for six weeks. After he was captured, he escaped again, then was recaptured, and died of torture and pneumonia. He was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.
Finally, I was grateful to see that Kaplan devotes a full page of what emerged from my printer as a nine-page essay to an under-appreciated book by a good friend of mine: John Stryker Meyer's Across The Fence: The Secret War In Vietnam.

All in all, Kaplan's piece is worth reading, not solely as a review of some of the best pieces from a genre that receives too little attention, but also as a cogent exploration of some of the less obvious and arguably more important parallels between our current war in Iraq and the earlier war to which it is ever more frequently compared.