The Last Cowboy Song

In 1953 my father bought us a television set, a Hoffman black and white with a twelve or thirteen inch screen. I was six then and we had just moved into a new ranch style house with mud where the grass would eventually grow. My older brother, three years my senior, would turn on the set early Sunday mornings before church so we could watch ‘Hoppy’ catch the bad guys. We grew up with Hop Along Cassidy and Gene Autrey, the old movie theater serials that became weekly television fare. It wasn’t until 1955 that I paid more attention to television for by that time Walt Disney and his evening hour long show became a family ritual. And I didn’t know anyone at school who didn’t watch ‘The Mickey Mouse Show’. Mom wouldn’t but me the ears or Davy Crocket’s coonskin cap, so as I child I was very deprived when I compared my life to that of the other kids.

But ‘Spin and Marty’ opened up the world of ranching and the wild west, so to speak. We watched ‘Wagon Train’ and a few other westerns, the Disney westerns when they appeared, and how could I forget the two most important films in my young life? “Old Yeller” was that water shed moment about the death of a beloved pet and having to be the one to put him down. We didn’t have a dog but I could empathies with that final scene. Then came “Westward Ho the Wagons”, 1956 and the we all wanted to be cowboys or at least head west on a wagon train. The closest I even came to ‘western life’ were the summers Nelson and I spent on my aunt’s farm in Texas. They raised Herford cattle and a host of other failed business ventures. Aunt Ruby and Uncle Les tried to combine cattle with raising turkeys, ducks and geese, laying chickens (I remember gathering eggs and then having to wash them), and hogs. But there were never any horses, not even close by. Now how can a boy grow up to be a cowboy if there’s no horses?

Unlike our suburban neighborhood where mowing the grass and pulling weeds were the chores expected to be done, the Texas State Fair at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas was the closest we would come to seeing horses and some rodeo events. I never heard of there being a local chapter of the FFA (Future Farmers of America) even though we lived a few miles from Cowtown, Fort Worth that is. Since then I have been to a couple of small rodeos as an adult so that is the sum total of experiences being close to cowboy life. By 1961 we had moved to the Philadelphia area and talking about such subjects made you a country bumkin. True, you learn something about outdoor life as a scout and an explorer but somehow that’s just not the same.

Ed Bruce captured the feelings many of my generation had when he said, “I can’t remember not wondering what it was like to be a cowboy.” “This is the last cowboy song, end of a hundred year waltz. Voices sound sad as they’re singing along, another piece of America’s lost.” America’s long haul truckers became the last cowboys in a way, they mirror many parts of that past life and now the future is uncertain, they too may be the last of their breed. I should know, I was one of them for a number of years. There are doubts that we will be eulogized in the same manner. The code of the west gave way to the code of the road and I don’t think another code awaits in the future shadows of history.

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What You Would Do For Love

I am, by my own admission, my own man and do not bend my knee for anyone. Some call it pride while others call it strength of character, I call it being me, enough said. My world is a man’s world, men do things and life tends to be a bit hard and even dangerous. I am a welder by trade and my craft is demanding, exacting if you will, no room for error. My teenage years were spent learning this craft, for it is a craft, do not think otherwise. High school metal shop classes learning how to use an oxy-acetylene torch and then on to stick welding, for you who do not know we call it arc welding and when done with quality one can make good money welding pipelines. There are other processes such as MIG and TIG welding, different metals require different methods and needless to say I have certificates in all of them. But the most dangerous is that of underwater welding, something I learned in the Navy while attached to submarines. Let’s just say that few do it well and I am one of those few, end of story.

Welding, like several other crafts are usually individual work. I mean, if you are a carpenter or plasterer or sheet rocker you tend to work in teams, it’s the nature of the work. Outside of pipelines you don’t have or need an assistant, you do all the prep work and finish work yourself. Hence it’s a craft that draws loners, guys who don’t need the social banter on the job as an assembly worker on a production line. I once worked on a production line making gasoline tanks for trucks, kind of sucked, everyone working at the same pace doing the same repetitive motions, just bleeds your soul of life. So I saved my pay and went to welding school to get my certifications and find employment. The really good thing is that the instructors have contacts and if you show ability and good attitude you get referred to good employment. Welding shops do production runs, meaning they get orders for engineered structures of the same design. Well, by now you must be getting bored with my story but there’s a point I’m trying to make. The craft requires a good deal of practice, sort of like being a musician. Then one day when you have enough experience and opportunity presents itself you can venture out on your own. That’s what I did, bought a truck suitable to be a welding rig and sell my services as a mobile welder doing repair or short production runs. It pays well as long as I can keep expenses down and contacts up. It’s a business built or trust and word of mouth.

It’s a good life but a busy one. Often my workday is ten or twelve hours in all weather and emergency repairs usually come calling on weekends and holidays. My social life tends to be close to non existent and confined to a couple of dinners in this city. I’d cook for myself but my hours are not regular enough to bother except microwave food and that get’s old after a while. Mornings finds me at Mom’s Cafe, so help me that is the name and it’s about two miles from my house. Scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and toast. I get my thermos filled with fresh hot coffee, black and robust flavor, to last me the whole day. Mrs Olson, the owner, has been at this spot for more years than I’ve been alive and she only does breakfast and lunch but the food is always good. When I bought the small bungalow about five years ago Mom’s Cafe intrigued me and I’ve gone there ever since for breakfast. Her clientele has grown some with my word of mouth advertising and I’ve even fixed a few things in her place gratis. Give a little and get a little, that’s how life works.

Diner is another matter for my jobs take me to various parts of the city and the time I eat varies according to the job. A Jason’s Deli might be handy or a Denny’s close by, Then there is a Mexican restaurant I like and a Chinese place, but most of all when I am near enough there is an Italian restaurant I love, the food is very good. But that’s me, a man without access to a home cooked meal. A couple more years and I can open my own shop, bid on jobs using the contacts I have made and keep more regular hours. I’m already on the young side of thirty, time to find a wife and settle down, raise a family, leave more than a reputation for quality work. At least that is what I tell myself is important. Lately I’ve been feeling like that old Eagles song, Desperado.

There’s a woman I met at one of my steady customer, Consolidated Machinery, she works in accounting and cuts the checks for the work I complete. Sometimes we talk a little, exchange more than just the weather or local sports. She surprises me with her knowledge of the local minor league baseball team, says her brother was once a triple A player, never met him. I played baseball in high school, did alright but no great talent and no scholarship offers. Just as well, formal education bores me although I read a lot, mostly non fiction. Lately I’ve been thinking about asking her out. She’s mid twentyish, good looking but no great beauty, sort of cute if you like. Her smile, I love to see her smile. I’ve never been all that attractive to women, I mean I dated a little but no girl ever chased after me if you know what I mean. Still, I like Estelle, there is something about her that connects to me. I hope she feels the same. All these years alone.

John, the foreman at Consolidate called me, said “Mike, I’ve got a problem. Two machines are down and I need you here at six tomorrow, can you make it?” “Sure, I just need to reschedule the work at Skyler’s shop, that job can wait a day or too.” John tells about the work to be done so I can load the truck with the materials I need for the repair. The next morning I’m up early and on my way to Consolidated, no Mom’s for me this morning but John will have coffee waiting for me. The guard opens the gate for me and I park by the main dock where John is waiting for me. “Hi John, what’s up?” “I’ve two machines in the old plant. They should have been replaced last year but finances just weren’t there so now we have to make do until next January. Let’s take your truck over there, I’ll show the way.”

Two workers and a forklift were waiting for us, apparently they had been clean the machines as best they could. “What do you think Mike, will it take long?” I looked over the first one, “That’s cast iron, John, I got to do that the old way with the torch, lot of prep work.” Then I cast an eye over the second machine, it needed a lot of welds in some tight places. “It’s about two, maybe three days work, which one do you need working first?” John pointed to the first machine. “Do it as quick as you can, may be a bonus in it if you can get that working today.” “Okay, I might work a miracle for you.”

Cast iron is difficult to work on and there were three deep cracks that needed to be ground out. I had the tow workmen position the forklift so as to support the first piece and take the strain off the metal. I set up the torch as close as I dared and left the truck outside the big doors. Cast iron needs higher heat than mild steel and only the torch can reach that temperature level for welding. On the other hand, I could bronze weld instead, it would hold and less chance of putting more cracks in the cast iron. I tell you, this job is as much art as it is craft. By noon the machine was ready to go, so I told one of the men to go get John. Fifteen minutes later three men were operating that machine and the noise level became higher.

On to the next machine. This would be a lot of clean up but it was very close quarter work. True, you can arc weld dirty steel but you can’t guarantee your work and Consolidated was paying for ‘good enough’ work. By six that evening I was too tired to continue and my body was aching from all the twisting and turning and odd positions. Not to mention that I was dirty and greasy, my coveralls needed washing as did my welding jacket. But mostly, I was very hungry and in need of a decent meal, so I headed over to El Lobo to enjoy a couple of enchiladas and a beer. As agreed I would return at six in the morning and finish the work. With any luck I’d be done by noon and have my check in hand with a nice bonus.

So now I’ve been working since six this next morning and the noon hour is fast approaching. About another hour of work and John will look like a hero to the old man who owns this company. Clean up always takes more time than it looks but the Lincoln welder and generator need a little cleaning and maintenance. Dirty clothes go into a bag I’ll drop off at the cleaners and I’ll spend the rest of the day restocking my truck. It’s two and I’m climbing the stairs to Estelle’s office. I must look a sight as I walk in and she notices my presence. “Hello Mike, John says he is very pleased with your work.” “Estelle, I am always pleased that John calls me when Consolidated needs repair work.” “By the way, Mr Morely was very pleased with the speed of your repair, he said to give you a bonus.” “Actually, Estelle, I have hope that the bonus would be dinner with you Friday night.” I don’t know what came over me but there it was, out in the open and I was taking a chance on rejection. Her face blushed a little and then she wrote something on a business card, it was her address. “I’d love to Mike, where are we going?”

Good Time Charlie Got’s The Blues

We all know someone who is a ‘goodtime Charlie’, lord knows I’ve met a few in my seventy five years on this earth. The genre is always the same, little boys who never grew up and who have little prospect to do so. I think some psychologist wrote a book called the Peter Pan Syndrome and the upshot is that there is always a ‘Wendy’ around to cater to their needs of continuing boyhood, someone to sew their shadows on their feet. But the story is always the same, contains the same elements, and sadly the same ending. As the song says, some got to win and some got to lose, Goodtime Charlie got the blues.

Names change but there seems to be a tendency towards those named Bubba, Bobby Lee, or even Beau. Don’t ask me for some definitive research on the subject, I go strictly on experience of past associations. Bob was somewhat handsome as looks go. Perhaps it was that was gifted with that certain ‘cuteness’ women find so attractive and he was a bit of a ‘bad boy’ too boot. We worked together in the factory, I spot welded the seams and then he did the seam welding, simple semi-skilled work. The factory was cold in the winter and hot in the summer while the wages were minimum, the union took theirs off the top. All I could afford was a room at the “Y” and a six pack of beer on the weekend. When you’re new in town their isn’t much to do and Bob was the only “friend” I had. Don’t ask me how he did it, but he was often hanging around downtown, sometimes drunk and sometimes sober. Kay was his wife and and she took care of the year old baby while working as a hair dresser. Blonde, thin, and pretty, she had that gift of laughter that gave sparkle in the eyes, made you feel at ease.

The factory closed down for two weeks of retooling and the two of us were left without pay, hard to make ends meet. But Uncle Sam caught up with me and I was destined to spend a hot summer in boot camp. Bob had been medically discharged from the Army after a few months and had almost no veterans benefits to speak of, so he was stuck in a rut. Still, the man had charm and knew how to use it, one can only marvel at his luck. I left what possessions I had with him and his wife, said I would be back later to collect them when I was settled at my next assignment after basic and they saw me off at the bus stop. Well, that was the plan, I expected to spend a couple of years at some Army camp doing what ever soldiers do except it didn’t happen that way at all. As Gomer Pyle would say, “Surprise, surprise!” and I was off to Vietnam.

Kay wrote a few times, mostly about the generalities of living but not much about her husband. I figured they might be having problems being that they were both young and low wage earners. Bob and I had both tried to get hire on at the GM plant, the money was about four times better than what we were making, but you had to know someone in the union and neither of us did. I assumed that Bob was still working at the factory. True, we had talked about going to L.A. before I was drafted, Kay wasn’t keen to go, she wanted to stay close to her family, I think she knew what lay ahead.

Averages mean something and after nine months “in country” I found myself with the average wound in a hospital in Saigon waiting to be returned back to the forward camp. No Medivac Flight back to Travis and a stateside Army hospital, I didn’t qualify. Of course it took almost two months for Kay’s last letter to reach me, it wasn’t good news but it wasn’t exactly bad either. Bob had taken off for California on some sort of promise of the good life where the grass is always greener. Yeah, the grass is always greener somewhere else and I knew he would find something he didn’t have in Ohio, a new girl friend for instance. I wrote a couple more times but she never answered. Nine months later I was released from active service and headed back to that city. Kay and the baby had moved back in with her family, she didn’t want to see me and her father had harsh words about Bob. He just dumped my box of belongings at my feet and closed the door.

It might have ended then for there was nothing for me left in that city save for that chance occurrence in the diner I used to frequent. Linda was on duty waiting on tables, said her husband was coming home next month and asked how I’d been and did I hear the latest. What was the latest, I asked, not knowing what or who she meant. “Bob, of course,” she informed me. Her husband, Jack, was stationed at March, the SAC base, and ran into Bob in out there. “Bob was cutting grass on the base at the time, you know, a contractor, sort of, and Jack just happened to notice him one day near his barracks.” My reply was, “I didn’t now your husband had ever met Bob.” “Oh he did, just that one time in the café. Jack thought Bob was paying too much attention to me and I was sure those two boys would come to blows, but I cooled Jack down and Bob left immediately.” “Does Kay know where Bob is?” Linda just looked at me, then stared out the window before speaking. “She does, she knows everything. He’s got a new wife, just didn’t bother to divorce Kay. And a new baby girl, can you imagine that?”

A few year later fortune would smile upon me with a job working for the for the telephone company as a lineman in Riverside, a growing metropolitan area east of Los Angles. It was a good job where I had the promise of a future, working outside, and being with a crew of men who liked their work and did it well. We worked hard during the week so we could have our Friday afternoon steak fry with one of the local PG&E power crews. The foreman gathered the cash from us and went to the store to buy the steaks and beer. Men get to talking, swapping stories on diverse subjects, places we’d been, people we knew, and maybe a bit about our service lives, nothing too personal. A new man on the electric line crew wanted to know how I came to end up in the Army. So I told a little story about working in a factory and my buddy Bob worked beside me and stuff in general. Then the guy said, “I knew a Bob Garth, he was from your area, worked mowing grass at the base. He was in a car crash in Moreno Valley, hit an overpass abutment. County coroner rules it a suicide. Paper said he left two wives and a couple of kids. Did you know him?” Everyone was looking at me and all I had to give them was silence. “Only for a couple of months, not long enough to really know the man.” Another can of beer changed the subject.

It’s A Matter Of Time

Time and tide wait for no man.  The world and the universe, all life for that matter, is about movement.  Existence is always going somewhere until it doesn’t.  It’s all a matter of time.  That was Noah’s personal philosophy, a bit facile but true enough for his purposes.  We would argue over a glass of wine about the essence of life.  Atoms, electrons, particles all moved, vibrated, or otherwise were doing something until they decayed.  Decay sounded like such a longed word, a concept about death and how every thing eventually met death, non existence, ran out of time.

Noah was a time watcher.  No, not a clock watcher, definitely not that.  For Noah time was not a set of hands that revolved around the face of a clock.  It was existance, life, that essence of being that eventually decayed into nothingness.  He used to say, “Energy and Mass were boon companions.”  Noah had pretenses towards physics and philosophy.  I was more engineering oriented.  Give me a problem and I’ll design a solution, that’s the practical lesson in life.  We were roommates at university for a couple of years.  Then one year he never came back.  Perhaps he had flunked out of the physics program.  Math was never his forte, that lingua franca in the world of science.  I thought he might have “decayed” when he failed to show up for classes.  The end of my senior year saw me graduate in the top ten percent and plied with half a dozen offers from the usual large engineering firms.  I was a structural engineer and ready to pursue the exams that would grant me the title of structural and civil engineer with the appropriate state seals.  Time would grant me a very good living with all the material things I might want.  All I had to do to achieve my dreams or the good life would come through the years of education and studious employment of meeting goals and objectives.  Well, not much of a philosophy when one is young, expectations being what they are for the young and inexperienced university graduate.

On the other hand Noah’s words came back to me the next day after graduation.  “Bill, you got to think more about time.  You only got so much time before your decay sets in, you know.  It’s not about the seconds and minutes and hours that count.  Their just markers, things to tick off.  You got to think about existence.”  So I looked at the offers before me and started to think about this thing called existence.  Noah had a point even if I wasn’t sure what it was was exactly.  Perhaps I feared that I just might start to decay if I settled for one of those junior engineer jobs at the large firms.  You know the kind, take the job, do the boring work and sort of retire in place as you draw the ever increasing paycheck every month.  May I would get lucky and be assigned to a really important project, make a name for myself.  Yeah, that might happen.  But what if it didn’t?  Maybe all I would get out of life was being ordinary and respectable.

So I took the job offer from the small but promising engineering firm, the one on the edge struggling to exist.  To my surprise my supervisor was not all that happy to see me.  “You’re too young for this company, you won’t stick it out and leave before a year is up.”  Simon Katz was balding, a bit pudgy but tall enough to handle the extra pounds.  With a large nose and intense brown eyes he had a formidable mien.  “I told John not to hire you, just so you know where I stand.  I don’t suffer fools.  Your temporary desk is in the corner.  There’s a stack of drawings and revisions that need to be filed.  Get to it and don’t take all week.”  I thought to myself, “Well, thank you for that warm and encouraging welcome.”

The morning of the third day I asked Mr Katz what he wanted me to do next.  “Two days, huh?  How many coffee breaks did you take?  Never mind.  David Kruger has the stress figures and the design parameters for a project he’s working on.  One of his people called in sick so report to him in room seven.  He needs some drawings done before noon.  Put a little hustle in it this time.”  “Yes sir, I’ll do that.”  Wow, this guy is a real hard nose.  So were my thoughts at the time.  The rest of the week was like that.  Always the kick in the pants from my boss.  Friday was payday and Mr Katz was handing out the checks.  He walked up to me and asked straight out, “Think you earned your pay this week?”  Being young and foolish I quipped, “If I didn’t, you’d be handing me a pink slip with that check.”  He looked at me for a moment, “Come back to work Monday, I may have more for you to do.”  I came back Monday, each new Monday for six months.

I was working on a set of drawings that needed revising when Mr Katz came over to my desk.  “John wants to see you in his office, now.  Follow me.”  Off we went, he leading and me following.  John was one of the VPs for the firm, a man about fifty, grey hair, soft blue eyes, middle height, and an infectious smile.  During my interview I had found him to be a very intelligent and friendly man.  So I was wondering what was in store for me as we walked into his office.  Mr Katz nodded to John and closed the door after I had entered.  “Bill, Simon tells me you are ready for your first assignment.  Don’t look so surprised.  Simon is the gatekeeper for new hires.  I think you’ll find him a little more friendly now that you have proven yourself so far.  As you might have noticed, the work we take on is work the big guys pass by or don’t want.  The city of Jonestown has a structural problem with one of their projects.  I want you to go and take a look at it.  You will gather all the information relevant for solution, develop a quote, and then come back here and assist Tom Bowers with the solution and the drawings.  Tom is one of our professional engineers in residence at the moment.  By the way, how far are you towards getting ready for the exam?”

“I’ve done the first two modules and I expect I may be ready by next June.”

“Uh huh.” Simon looked at me for a few moments, “Don’t rush it, it’s a difficult exam.  Most engineers fail the first time.  I want you to pass it the first time.  If necessary, I’ll spend some time with you.”

I nodded, “Thanks, I appreciate the offer.”

Once you get the drawing completed and Tom puts his seal on them then you must sell the solution to the city engineers at a negotiated price that gives us a minimum profit of ten percent.  Anything over that is your bonus.  But don’t get too big a head, I don’t expect you’ll get more than half a percent.  See Ms Thompson for the expense vouchers and remember to keep track and receipts of all your expenses.  Our accountant runs a very tight set of books.”  “Wow”, I thought, “this is my introduction to real pressure from all quarters and a short time to accomplish the company’s goal.”  Noah’s words drifted back into my mind and I began to think about time.  I started to think about the existence of the problems, how solutions might fit in at the right time, and how the customer could be pleased.  How I used my time and that of the customers and my associates would determine the right plan.  So before I set off for the city of Jonestown I spent that evening in the public library researching the town, its problems, and its desires.  It seems that Jonestown lack the necessary funds for a grand scheme of civic improvements, and lack of funds meant they were running out of time to implement them.  So where to start?

All civic improvements involve two things, the group of individuals or businesses who will directly benefit from the money spent, and the politicians running for re-election.  Somehow the voters and the taxpayers don’t count.  I was there until the library closed that evening looking for those answers and making extensive notes on what I had found.  The next day I was driving to Jonestown and checking into a hotel downtown.  I picked a quiet place two blocks from the main street, the rates were reasonable and I’d get no argument from the accountants on that score.  Then I walked the town a bit.  Time always has at lease two sides in these situations, two political parties.  What better than to stop by the local party offices and ask a few questions, nothing pointed or personal, just a few feelers for information.  And don’t forget the Better Business Bureau, those people love to talk as my father once told me.  “Son, those people don’t know when to shut up.”  Monday morning I would go down to city hall and nose around before seeing the city engineer.  The city engineer would tell me what the city would want, what it would expect, and when it would expect it.  The city engineer would always ask for two to thee times what they could afford and whine when you said no.  Suffice it to say I wasn’t disappointed with the demands and the requirements they presented.  The standard answer is always, “We’ll evaluate the requirements and present a solution.”  If this was a big city I wouldn’t even be here.  Big cities need payoffs to local unions, local mafia dons, donations to political campaigns, and the list goes on.

So I gathered my facts and my figures, took a lot of photographs, and summed up my impressions and what solid knowledge I had of the city and its projects, for there were several projects.  I also collected names, addresses, telephone numbers and e-mail addresses of individuals who were close to the projects in one way or another.  Hell, I was writing a book, a non fiction one but still a book.  I was back in the office Thursday, one day over my allotted time.  Mr Katz wasn’t please at first but when he saw how detailed the work had been he took me to John Anderson’s office.  John was impressed.  “I like how you separated the wheat from the chaff, shows good insight. Lets get with Tom for lunch, you might as well join us for we have a lot to talk about.”  As Noah said, “Time is about your existence in the universe.”

I Can’t Tell You Why

Tall cedars and spindly aspens struggle to penetrate the decomposed granite, what thin soil remains forms a small irregular meadow of tough grass elk graze upon. This place isn’t much, ten acres of peace and quiet connected to civilization by about four miles or so of chert locals call a road. USGS says it’s a mule track once used by miners searching for gold and what not. I’m lucky, I have a small year round stream just off my southern border. The water is clean but cold and freezes up in the late autumn, doesn’t thaw until late April. I built a small cabin from stone and logs, curtsey of the Forest Service. All that was some years back before the county took an interest pushing building code and property taxes up here. The inspectors want me to tear it down but according to county laws it’s grandfathered, so they quit bothering me about it. This is high country, about 8,000 feet, away from what so many now call civilization. Winters are hard up here, they’re suppose to be, keeps the tourist and gawkers out and the suburbanites at bay.

There was a time when I was like the rest of humanity putting in my time, my daily struggle for existence and hoping for some happiness. Some are much better at competing for success and happiness than I ever was and many seem to barely scrape along like automobiles dragging a loose muffler. They make a lot of noise then fall off due to fatigue. Well, that was me at an early age, I fell off and saw no sense in being welded back on. It’s a long story, but then everyone has a long story, just ask them. Now many of the old Greeks and Romans believed in fate. Some people call it the luck of the draw in life but that’s not exactly how it goes. No, fate is that thing in your life that guides your choices either for the good or the bad experiences. A man who reaches a height over six and a half feet has a fate of most likely being a basketball player. I mean how could he not be one? He’ll play the game in high school and maybe in college but seldom in the professional arena. No, he’ll find a way to do something else with his life but everyone knows he once played basketball, so his choices will be to find the good in his life. A few don’t, they waste their lives trying to be what they can’t, always denying the choices to find the good in life.

All through my childhood and into my teens about half the kids I knew had some idea of what they wanted to be when they grew up. A few like my older brother knew by the time he was twelve exactly what he wanted to be in life, an electrical engineer. Some of the kids faced the prospect of growing up taking what ever employment was available, others looked toward college to give them an answer. I wanted to be almost everything. Fireman, policeman, soldier, sailor, almost everything looked interesting and fun. Once in secondary school I thought about being a chemist because I saw a movie where the young rule breaking chemist was the antihero (antiheroes were big stuff in my teenage days). We lived in a world of possibilities where time seemed unlimited. Hey, I could be a doctor or a lawyer or even a high school teacher. But then the day comes when fate intervenes and hands you your draft notice, Uncle Sam has made the decision for you and more young men like you. Well with a little luck I could be sent to Germany for a couple of years like a few others I knew. But it was 1965. a fateful year with many more to follow.

After basic, which was no worse than an extended football camp with three a day practice periods in the hot and humid summer it was off to AIT or advanced infantry training. Long marches that increased in length every day by five miles for a six day period. At least we had Sunday off to attend to our blistered feet. The end of training brought our assignments and about half the company was headed for Vietnam. I was being sent to a G2 school or intelligence training. Pretty lucky, I thought, maybe they will teach me cartography. Instead I was taught basic interrogation techniques and shipped off to Vietnam two weeks later. Like a few others who had attended that school for no-good-niks I found myself in a base camp and on loan to any firebase in need of my services. No time to thank my lucky stars as I discovered that being ‘on loan’ meant replacing an injured platoon member and going out on area sweeps and fire missions. It also meant that all my equipment were hand-me-downs borrowed from the company and may not be in the best of condition. My intelligence company farmed me out to no less than eight fire bases where I was always a stranger, never a member. The story of my life up to that point, always the outsider, the warm body as I was called then. But it must have been a charmed life for in any ambush or firefight others around were hit, wounded and maybe died. As the sports announcer would say at the end of the game, “No hit, no runs, no errors, no man left on base.” My year in hell ended soon enough and after a trip to Texas, home of Fort Hood which is a large sprawling base full of sand and fleas and scorpions and snakes I found myself looking for work.

Sorry Son, there’s a recession and we ain’t hiring. Well, there’s always hope, I might catch on somewhere. So like Jed Clampet I loaded up the Greyhound Bus and headed for California. San Francisco was the place to be, or so everyone told me. It took a while but I finally hired on with the Phone Company as a cable splicer. Not exactly what I had in mind as a child or teenager. But fate is the great teacher in life and so I learned about craftsmanship, about the quality of one’s work, and the respect other men give you where you work is outstanding. That is one of the great guiding principles in life and many never learn such a valuable lesson. On the other hand craftsmanship never really pertains to human interaction. We never think of loving another human being as a work of quality craftsmanship for if we did there we be no divorce, no unhappy marriages, and no disappointed children and parents. It seems so easy to succeed in one’s business life or profession than it is to succeed in one’s personal life. Perhaps it’s that thing we call control over our environment and the people within it that appears to be so difficult to achieve.

So I married a woman who had a few mental problems, not that these issues showed in the beginning. Well, maybe I ignored some of the warning signs like a drunk driver blowing through stop signs and red lights. Borderline personality, what a wonderful rubric of problems. You know if I want to cut a two by four to a certain length I can mark it with my ruler and cut that piece of wood with a good saw to within one sixteenth of an inch, or one thirty-second of an inch if I’m really good. But how does one measure mental illness with any accuracy? The professionals can’t tell you and us laypeople have no measuring stick that will even come close to the mark. Sixteen years of hell and she took everything I owned save my spirit, my freedom. Fate is a guide if nothing else and so I found myself in Colorado living out of my pick up truck with a camper shell and buying a piece of land long before the prices skyrocketed. Like so many experiences in my life, I learned to pick up the pieces and get on with living as best as I could. When all else fails get a job in construction, it’s honest work and you can gain entry to other areas of endeavor. I learned some plumbing skills, some electrician skills, and even masonry skills. then I caught on to welding and started to accumulating money in the sock. I build my cabin in a plain basic style as if I was a pioneer settling the land. I rented a small cottage locally on the Front Range, I remade my life if you like. I spent a lot of time in the city library and then in the college library as I worked towards a degree. Call it a bit of useless pride for I would never use that degree in any sort of professional way. We learn to pay for our vanity as it were and it did cost me both time and money.

Then one day she walked into my life. Well, what can I say, we are all fools for love, the honey pot catches the flies. Not that she didn’t have problems, god knows I had my own. But these imperfections weren’t the sort that drains your soul and your life essence. We have been growing old together and my cabin has expanded, albeit illegally. Still no running water (but we do have a basic sewage system, unapproved of course) nor electric power. Generators work well enough in the evenings and battery storage is good for most low wattage appliances. Lately we’ve added a few solar cells and a wind powered generator. We call it basic engineering of life’s needs. And don’t forget wood, the forest service still allows the cutting of timber, a good renewable energy source. Fate has finally pushed me in the right direction. As for my new love, my helpmate in life, don’t ask me why I love her, I have no answer.

Copperhead Road

I met Robert Lee Fitzhugh in Vietnam, we were both a couple of months into our second tours.  Robert Lee, as he preferred to be called, was a good old boy of the south.  Family had roots in North Carolina near Asheville but lived further south toward Franklin, nestled up in the mountains.  He used to refer to me as a half breed since I was born in the south, Texas to be exact, but had spent my youth in the north near Philadelphia.  My southern accent was almost extinct while his flowed as thick as honey and rubbed the ear like a silk handkerchief.  Robert Lee was a soft spoken man with an easy manner but those who crossed him only did it once.  Like a big old copperhead snake sunning himself, he could coil up and strike and strike hard like a hammer in a velvet bag.

“Conscripts, that’s what we are.”  Robert Lee wasn’t often given to idle chatter, said it distracted him from the job at hand.  But the night was quiet, that is the normal sounds one hears when the NVA isn’t creeping about trying to be sneaky.  Our outpost was freshly dug that night and well hidden.  “Feel like a deer out here at night waiting to change its sleeping spot at the first noise it hears.”

“Well, we got a couple more hours before we need concern ourselves.  Still early yet, birds still quiet and the insects still chattering.”  I was more noncommittal in my comments as the night was young and any visitors wouldn’t be stirring till near after midnight.  Most of our attacks came about three AM cause that is when most guys fall asleep.  “You’re not getting nervous on me, are you Robert Lee.”

“Son, the day I get nervous we both gonna die.  Remember that.”  I hadn’t exactly crossed him and he wasn’t striking out hard but I know I struck a nerve with my comment.  “Sorry Mike, didn’t mean to rub your fur the wrong way.  Just doing a little thinking, that’s all.  Got money in the sock and just need a plan for next year.”

Robert Lee stayed quiet after that and as it came up on three that morning we heard the sounds of a couple of men trying to slip quietly towards our position.  From what I could tell, seem to be about three men probing the area.  One of them must have been a new recruit because he was making just enough noise to draw attention to himself.  The other two seemed to be on his left flank.  Robert lee and I were more concerned about the other two than the noise maker.  But we had our trap set.  An old trick that remained a trick because recon parties never made it back to tell their friends.  Robert Lee slipped out as silent as a cat thanks to his training as a child in hunting back in the mountains.  I stood by because I couldn’t emulate that cat like quality needed to glide along the ground in search of others who were searching for you.  I stood by because if there was going to be a fire fight I was an excellent shot, damn near sniper material.  I might be a little noisy but I could move quick enough and hit what I targeted on the run.  Robert Lee and I made a good team, the best in the regiment.  The noise maker was our trophy for the night.  He was young and new to the game, he would sing for his supper.

The two of us went to Saigon for the weekend.  You know, the usual scene of drinking and bar girls and fights with other GIs.  I mean, what else was there to do?  As Robert Lee put it, “You can raise hell or you can raise corn and tobacco, not much difference twixt the two.”  That was one of his more loquacious moments when he explained the world to the satisfaction of all listeners.  But this time he was quieter than usual.  “Mike, I think I’ve got a plan.  I’ve been saving most of my pay and got quite a nest egg set aside.  You know staff sergeant Lopez?  He’s Columbian, got family and a farm back in the hills somewhere.  Can’t quite remember where.  He’s got connections, good family connections.  I think I can get some good seed to plant between the corn rows when I get home, raise me a cash crop.  Uncle Tommy Lee says he knows people I can do some business with.”  Wow!  That was quite a mouthful for Robert Lee to get out.  I hadn’t heard that many syllables from him since he explained an operation we completed last month.

“So you think Lopez can be trusted?  He seems more like a lifer to me, I mean, what’s he got going for him?”

“He wants to be an American citizen so he needs references.  He’s a quartermaster, no chance for medal, not even a purple heart.  Besides, I collected some of his markers.  Fool doesn’t know how to play cards.  I’ll get what I want from him.”

I was silent for a while, thinking about Robert Lee’s plan.  I mean it sounded half good.  Family farms were playing out, not worth growing anything these days.  My aunt’s farm taught me that.  A lot of goddamn hard work just to pay the banks notes and keep the electricity turned on.  I had learned about farming from the summers I spent on her farm.  A lot of hard work in the heat of summer.  That was the one topic Robert Lee and I could exchange our views.  Western North Carolina was hard scrabble land, a bit rocky from the eons of mountain erosion, soil that begged for fertilizer, and hardwoods that encroached what fertile soil was left.  But it had virtues undiscovered but many would be farmers, enough tree cover to hide covert activities.  A few hundred acres would be enough to make his plan work.  Plant some corn as a cover crop to hide the marijuana crop from the prying eyes of the AFT flights looking for illegal moon shine stills and harvest in the fall a commercial crop worth far more than the price of corn.

Robert Lee had a plan and I could see no real flaw except the DEA people nosing around, not that they were geniuses able to ferret out such ambitious enterprises.  .I was in, volunteer for a second tour and try to stay alive.  Together Robert Lee and I would caste our fates to the wind, there was a future to consider after our time in hell was up.  That was the Joker, making through that last year alive.  Four months before I was to complete my second tour my team was caught in a crossfire by the NVA, they had set a trap and the lieutenant had walked in to it.  Raymond  Berry was a reserve officer looking for a medal and he earned it posthumously, no amount of urging could prevent him from his appointment with death.  Out squad was hit hard, two killed, the rest wounded to the point of medical discharge a year later.  A medal is no substitute for pain relief.  Meanwhile Robert Lee had made his way through the normal discharge procedure and collected his pay for services rendered.

The world was a different place now, America had changed, becoming almost a foreign land and I felt as if I were a stranger amidst a population I could barely recognize.  Maybe I was the one who had changed, two years of war and another in an Army hospital trying to heal my wounds, trying to come to terms with all the death and dismemberment around me.  Yeah, maybe it was me who had been lost in that fog called war and now the clouds were slowly lifting revealing a surreal landscape.  I remember the Huey that picked us up, the ride laying next to the mangled body of Berry and the groans of the wounded buddies and the indistinct face of the medic as he kept an eye on me. If Rod Serling had stepped forward and welcomed me into the Twilight Zone I would not have blinked an eye.  The morphine kicked in and did its job, my mind became a blank.

Drifting in and out of consciousness, or was it sanity, not sure I knew the difference yet there I was like an actor hearing the director of my movie giving orders: “Cameras, action, mark…Cut, print it”.  All that was missing was a basic plot as so many seemed content to mumble their lines.  No one ever said: “That’s a wrap!”.  All I knew was that my body hurt while one leg was in traction and both arms covered in bandages.  That brace on my neck kept me from seeing the rest of me but every day I was poked and prodded and each wound redressed, a routine that lasted several months.  Some officer from my regiment told me that the NVA had managed to explode an old piece of French ordinance close to our position and that I looked like Swiss cheese.  Burns from the flask of the explosion had made it difficult to remove all the shrapnel and I would ooze metal out of my skin for years to come.  Lieutenant Berry had his Silver Star and I my Purple Heart, we were officially heroes and could feel proud of our service to our country.  So began the long trip back to civilian life.

Eventually I parted company with the Army at Fort Bragg, each of us feeling relief that we would never see one another ever again.  There was money in my pocket and cane at my side with the promise of a monthly disability check as I stepped on the bus for Ashville.  My Army mementos were stored in a bus station locker for the duration as I had no further need of them as I had enough reminders to last me a lifetime.  Once I reached the city I rented a car, bought a map, and drove towards that area where Copperhead Road lay, a place where Robert Lee called home.  People are very closed mouth when outsiders come around, often turning their backs to you or mumbling some misdirection that took you out of town.  Word gets around quick and I found my answer soon enough in a small coffee shop.  She was a tall blond woman, young with a face that had a few premature wrinkles above her brow and a body that was use to hard work.  Everyone in our company carried photographs of their parents, siblings, and girl friend or wife save me and Robert Lee.  But I would have know his sister anywhere for they were close in age and close in resemblance.  Bonnie Lee had appeared quickly and quietly at my side, her message was terse, delivered almost without emotion.  “He’s dead, there’s nothing for you here. Best be on your way.”  Before I could ask any questions she had turned and disappeared.  The woman behind the counter came over with her pot of coffee and filled my cup again.  “Revenuers got him three months ago.”

My Heros Have Always Been Cowboys

Times were hard for me back when Bob Dylan once sang, ‘ you’re all alone and you’re out on your own like a rolling stone’….I was in Cincinnati working in a small factory for minimum wage and lucky to get that. I was looking at life and almost terrified of the future. When a man, or perhaps a woman, is young a year seems like a life time. Anyone over thirty is ancient history and should be praised for living so long.  Living in the YMCA downtown Cincy my only advantage was my Pennsylvania driver’s license, that stub of an IBM card printed with graphite instead of ink.  Take a razor and gently scrape away the graphite and use a number four pencil to change that last digit of the year of my birth.  Viola, I was twenty two, drinking age for all that it was worth.  I could buy real beer not that 3.2 crap.  When you’re new in town friends are difficult to make.  I mean, where do you go who do you meet.  I could take a hike toward the University of Cincinnati and find some beer bar and dance hall that catered to students, that was good for a night of dancing with the coeds but none of them were going to ask you back to their dorm.  I couldn’t afford a television set, things cost too much back then.  No, I was just breaking even at my rate of pay and no promise of milk and honey in the future.

 

But I did by chance meet the old man of the “Y”, well as far as I knew he might have been a hundred or thirty five for all I knew.  He lived in the “Y” for many years as far as I could find out.  The staff called him the Old Timer.  As such, he never seemed to have much money on him and always trying to mooch off the others, new strangers were his targets.  I guess he figured I had more money than sense.  He guessed wrong for a man can part with what he doesn’t have.  I think I said that right.  But I could buy a couple of cans of Colt 45 malt liquor every Saturday and I didn’t mind sharing.  So I’d go to his room and we would talk.  Actually he did most of the talking.  Loquacious is what it’s called and he was very.  I think though his world was more dream that reality.  Still, it was worth the can of malt liquor just to hear him talk.  I remember the first time he circumlocuted his way through that vast mine of memories.  The nuggets he pulled out were huge and sparkled like gold in the noonday sun to a youth of little experience.

 

“Bill, my heroes have always been cowboys.  I remember as a young kid going down to the Bijou and handing over my nikel to the woman in the cage in front of the theater just so I could see Tom Mix on that big silver screen.  Hoot Gibson and Ken Maynard were larger than any men I ever knew.”  His face would brighten some as his eyes became slightly moist.  “You know they never drew down on a man first and never shot a man in the back.  No sir, never.  They were true to the code of the cowboy.  Yes sir re bob.”  Then he’d take another sip from the can, pause in thought for a moment, then look far off into the distance, far beyond the walls of his room, perhaps as far away as Hollywood.  “My how them fellas could ride and shoot.  All real good shots too.  You got to time it just right when you shoot from the saddle.  I just knew that was the life for me.  A man’s word is his honor, Bill, don’t you forget that.”  I said I wouldn’t, yes, I would be truthful.  I thought he was an old fool.  Never saw him go off to work or do much of anything.  Just a old man down on his luck.  He’d been kicked out of the television room and I can guess why.  The set would only show two channels and most people wanted to watch sitcoms or cop shows.  The few times that anyone was foolish enough to turn on a western that old man would be talking over the volume.  He’d be expounding about everything western, from horses to bunkhouses.  Might as well turn the set off.

 

Another sip and more reflections.  I listened.  For a couple of hours I was halfway entertained.  The only other thing I could do was to walk about the city for a couple of hours wishing I had friends and a nice place to live and a girlfriend.  At least I could sit and drink a little, smoke my cigarettes and hope the old timer had something interesting to say.  “Now we lived in New Jersey in Camden.  Never saw a horse in my life until I left home and headed west.  No sir, weren’t no horses in that city.  It was the Depression, Bill, when I left home.  My father was out of work and my mother had to take in washing and ironing just to get by.  Me and my brother, John, well, there just wasn’t any work for us.  So we left.  I quit school like my older brother cause I knew my mother was working herself to death trying to make ends meet.  You got to do what’s right in life, Bill.  Come hell or high water, you got to do what’s right.”  His voice trailed off, almost as if he was watching the past on those big screen eyes of his.  Another sip, man he had it down pat, how to milk the liquid out of a can of beer, make it last for hours.  He wasn’t as successful with his money.  Don’t know where he got that little pittance of his.  I only know there was too much month left after he paid for his room and weekly meal ticket.  The only life he seemed to have was his memories.  But I was young and callow and absorbed in my own lack of success.

 

“I rode the rails then.  Rode them all over this country.  Sometimes the bulls would get you and you might do a month on the farm.  Then out you go, run out of town and not even a nickel in your pocket.  I wanted work, but nobody was hiring.  Even in Montana and Wyoming, there I thought I could get work as a cowboy, you know.  They all laughed at me, call me a goll dern tenderfoot.  Well, that’s part of the code, telling the truth.  I was a tenderfoot.  What did I know about riding a horse?”  He took another sip and settled into that stare of his.  It always left me hanging until he would start again.  Perhaps he was teaching me a little bit about patience.  How to let a man tell his life’s story with out interruption.  “Never speak ill of any man, even if you’ve got a grudge.  Go walk in his boots first.  Yes sir, you’ve got to be gentle and kind to women and children and animals.  Especially animals cause they cant speak for themselves.  No sir, never harm anyone or anything less’n you have to.  You know, protect yourself. It’s the Cowboy Code, Bill, and a darn good one.  Yes, a darn good one.”  His voice trailed off again into that stare of his.  Another sip and some more thought.  You know, I made it to Los Angeles in ’36, Hollywood is near by there.  I tried to get work in the studios.  I though I could be a cowboy or a stunt man or extra.  They all just laughed at me.  Sent me packing.  I’d sneak onto those sets, find the ones where they was doing a western, you know.  Eventually they got so used to seeing me that I became one of the prop men.  Me, in Hollywood.”  He showed that sense of surprise at that thought.  His eyes moisten slightly and he held his head a little higher.  “All I did was stand around and move props when they told me.  Couldn’t do nothing else.  They wouldn’t even let me be an extra, said I had to join a union for that.  We didn’t make much, a dollar a day and that’s more than the extras could do seeing as how their work wasn’t steady.  It was the depression, you know.  I was grateful for any work.”

 

Another sip and another thought appeared on his brow.  “The war came, Bill.  Being patriotic is a cowboy’s duty, so I went down to enlist.  The gave me all sorts of tests and then said they couldn’t use me.  Imagine that, Bill.  They said they couldn’t use me.  Well the pay got better for us set workers and I use to volunteer at those canteens for the service men.  And every year I’d go down and try to enlist.  But is was always the same answer.  We don’t need you.  We don’t need you.”  Another stare into the wall, then another sip and another thought.  “Anyway, I got hurt in an accident on one of the sound stages, couldn’t work no more.  They pensioned me off, said they couldn’t use me anymore.  Just like that, they couldn’t use me any more.”  I could hear the pain in his voice.  I could not understand it then as I do now.  Most of his life had been full of pain.  Yet his cowboy code bade him to bear it without complaint.  It became just another sip.  Months later I’d be in the service, seems they needed me.

How Much I Feel

Did you ever notice how people pop in and out of your life only to pop back in again? Well, if truth be known, maybe it’s me doing the popping as I have lived in quite a few different cities and states these many years. I can remember a time when people use to keep Christmas card lists and the position of your name on that list often determined your importance in their lives. Now, if we’re lucky we might rate as many as one hundred and fortyfour characters in a text message, if we rate a text message at all. I think twitter has replaced the Christmas card list. But I’m not adept at social media and don’t really care to be.  Call me extremely old school, but I much prefer to use a good fountain pen and good bond paper to convey my sentiments to others.  But I digress.  This year I found myself going back to a small city where I worked and lived fifteen years ago, back when land lines were still common and the cell phone was on the verge of overwhelming the population with it’s seductive attraction of ring tones, texting, and smart phone upgrades.  Out of habit, I avoid these things as much as possible.  I don’t care for all this instant social media, reminds me too much of that cup of asian noodles cuisine, bland and full of empty calories.

 

The other day I ran into Paul, a friend I had known well back in the day, so to speak.  I was in a delicatessen on Fifth Street and main, an old haunt of mine and marveling that, thank god, some things don’t change.  They make a good pastrami and swiss on rye, like Jason’s in Denver.  Paul was sitting at a table with a couple of people when he spotted me.  I was in line and in the act of paying for my meal when he came up and clapped me on the shoulder.  I was briefly taken aback, he had changed somewhat from the last time I saw him.  “Hey, Bill, god, it’s been ages since I last saw you.  Come over to my table for a moment.”  There was that little boy excitement in his voice.  I followed with my tray and sat down.  “Bill, this is Frank, he’s the accountant for our group.  And this is John, one of the engineers on our current project.  Dave here is the project manager.”  Well the hand shaking and all that nodding of heads and so forth, the lull in conversation was apparent.  “Well, Paul, it’s been a long time.  But I see you’re eating with your team so don’t let me interrupt.”  The other three individuals demurred and Paul said, “We’ve got to get back to work in a few minutes.  I don’t suppose you have my number?”  I said not and Paul wrote it down on one of his business cards.  “I’ll call you tomorrow, maybe we can step out for dinner one night this week.”  I gave Paul my business card with my number, a land line.  For me some things never change.

 

Paul called the next afternoon, “Bill, how ya doin?  Look, things are hectic here and I don’ mean to be rude.  Would Sunday work for you?”  “Sure Paul, Sunday’s just fine.  I’m a little busy myself at the moment.”  “Ok, then see you at Rue Madeleine about four.”  “Yep, I’ll be there.”  With that, he hung up and I resumed what I was doing.  The rest of the week went well enough, no problems to speak of, but one never knows in advance in my business.  Saturday passed in an uneventful way as I reacquainted myself with the city and did a little shopping for the apartment.  On Sunday morning I read the paper, an old habit of mine in this age of instant electronic information transfer.  Newspapers aren’t what they used to be.  I remember that San Francisco used to have two really good newspapers before they declined in readership.  Then they merged, laid off a number of press operators and writers, the kiss of death for most newspapers.  Competitors keep you honest and lean as a general rule.  After a light lunch I was sitting in the wingback chair, I always have a wingback chair in my living room or study, I was thinking of Natalie, Paul’s girlfriend fifteen years ago.  I did not hear much about her after I left for the coast, always assumed they’d marry and raise a couple of children.  That was the plan as Paul use to tell me.  She was a blonde with green eyes, wore her hair short in that Goldie Hawn way, almost impish like.  It certainly matched her personality, a bit bubbly and giggly like a young girl.  But there was a serious side to her when she chose to show it.  She worked in an art gallery then and could be very intense with discussing some artist or trend.  She had been in her senior year as an art history major when Paul met her.  He was completing his MBA.  I always though they got on very well, hand in glove, so to speak.  Well, life is like that, I suppose.

 

Rue Madeleine is a small French restaurant that has survived because it chose to concentrate on the idea of Bonne Femme cooking.  The owner had set menus for each day except Monday, when the restaurant was closed.  If one has been to France and eaten in the small town or village restaurants, then this is your place.  Good basic food cooked to perfection.  Unless one is a regular it is difficult to get reservations less than a month in advance.  That’s where I met Paul and Natalie.  They had come for dinner and no table was vacant.  I was dining alone and I saw the commotion from my table.  At a signal from me, the owner sat them at my table and made his apologies.  But there it was, a situation that by chance became fortuitous.  We emerged as friends and frequented each others company.  As I walked through the door I half expected to see Paul and Natalie sitting at one of the tables waiting for me.  The owner looked at me as if to say, ‘Sorry, we are full.  You must make a reservation.’  I cleared the matter up.  “Emile, I’m dining with Mr Burke this afternoon.  Has he arrived?”  “Mr Lynn, could it be you after all this time?”  Emile had that surprised but pleased look on his face and in his voice.  “Yes, I’m back and will reclaim my regular status.”  “Ah, good.  Yes, Mr Burke is here.  Right this way.”  The table was the one we had always favored, in a quieter part of the room by one of the windows.  Paul motioned for me to sit.  “I’ve ordered a bottle of chardonnay to start, if you don’t mind.”  He knew I wouldn’t, his tone was confidant.

 

Over an order of crab pate and crudities Paul brought me up to date.  He and Natalie had a falling out.  ” I just never understood, Natalie accused me of having an affair with a woman at work, said she was calling everything off.  Well, what could I do but agree?  I mean, you know how I felt about her.  I’d do anything to make her happy, protect her.  So I gave her some space and waited.  Perhaps she would come to see it was all untrue about me.  Bill, I swear I carried a torch for her for years, just hoping she’d come back, change her mind.  Then two years later she moved to the northeast; Boston, New York, wherever, I’m not sure.  Then two years ago she was here at the university art museum doing an installation.  By then I was married to a wonderful woman.  You’ll meet Beth Wednesday.  She says she wants cook you a good meal.  She likes to cook.”  Paul was grinning as he regaled me with the wifely qualities that Beth possessed.  I thought he was trying a little too hard to convince himself.  I asked, “Paul, so what did you and Natalie talk about when she came to town?”  He looked at me as if I had hit him between the eyes, hard.  “Yeah, I should have known I couldn’t fool you or myself.  I love Beth, I really do.  But I’ll always love Natalie a little more.  It’s just how I feel, feel for Natalie.  God forgive me my sins.”  “He will, Paul, he will. I was trying to console him.  You know, I am looking forward to meeting Beth, I bet she’s all you say she is.”

Dance With Me

Fall is a glorious time in the wine country just as it is in New England. The end of August starts the harvesting of rich ripe grape clusters and continues through the beginning of September while the work of crushing and fermenting is usually complete by mid October.  Then the wine has been put to a long eighteen months rest in new oak barrels. By the end of October the fall celebrations are under way and autos full of people are flocking to the highways watching the leave first turn varying shades of yellow then red and finally that dark brown that marks the end of their yearly lives. Later when soft rains of Thanksgiving fall they will be disked into the ground and provide the nutrients for the vines.  This work is done each year around the world, from France, Italy, Germany, and many other countries on the European continent to America, Canada, and Mexico on the North American continent to India.  It is an age old practice from the time man first harvested grapes and made wine.

 

Michael and Paula had invited me to their vacation home in the wine country, a modest bungalow that had belonged to his parents, a wedding gift for the couple.  The last of the turning leaf army had straggled back to congested cities and suburban tracts of ticky-tacky yet the leaves still retained the last vestiges of color as if they had waited on my approval.  I approved most gratefully and thanked them for their patience.   The dark grey stone gave the house a sense of age and presence, a lesson of endurance for the younger stucco that sometimes crowded the hillsides.  Michael’s great grandfather had built that house before the turn of the last century, the tremors that so delight the inhabitants in the coastal cities had failed to even move it out of square.  Most of the original land tract had been sold to a couple of grape growers but Paul had one or two acres left on which he tended the few apple and plum trees clustered around the house.  One sprawling oak dominated the property, it was planted in 1895, not long after the house was built.  The gravel lane from the main road was half hidden and one had to traverse a little more than a mile up that path to the top of the hill.  I remember the first time I was on that crest, the view was impressive as fog press the colors into grey wisps and flowed like the sea across row after row of vines.  It was a million dollar view that I hoped would never be disturbed.

 

Sam, golden retriever greeted my car with an air of authority and waited until I opened the door to give me close inspection.  Michael followed behind and gave the command, “Sam, sit!”  Which he did as a good and obedient dog should.  “I have to watch Sam, he likes to jump up on strangers.  Never could break him of that habit, don’t know where he picked it up.”  “Maybe from Paula” I said.  We both chuckled at the thought.  And on cue, Paula came running out of the house and leaped into my arms with a welcoming, “Hello, stranger.”  Michael and I both looked at each other.  I put her back on her feet and she led the way to the door.  Michael had my overnight case in his hand while Sam brought up the rear.  “It’s a stunning time of year, thank you two for having me.”  Paula spoke in the quiet but assertive manner of hers, “We love it here when we can get away.  And you know we love having you stay with us.”  We walked through the door and Michael took me to my room, a cozy little place just large enough for a regular bed, a wash stand and a small dresser.  The view out the window more than made up for it’s lack of size.

 

In what used to be called a common room and not is today’s open concept, we sat and sipped a glass of white wine.  Two of the old growers always gave Michael and Paula a couple cases of their yearly vintages as a gesture of good will.  The couple snuggled on the couch while I reposed in the wingback.  Paula knew I had a preference for the old wingback style and had added this one to their decor, ridding themselves of that hideous barrel type one considered chic decades ago.  Their style of living here, away from the pretence of the city, was one of old comforts and ease of life.  As Paula once explained, “In the city we need to keep some pretence of current style because of our work.  But we never feel as ease there.  Here, we can let down our hair and be horribly middle class.”  Michael cut in, “Time is measured in seasons here and moves slowly, in tune with nature.  I feel relaxed, I can think about life.  But you’re a writer, you know all about that.”  I envied them, not because they had this getaway but because they had each other.

 

A few years ago I first met Michael at a party, one of those affairs where the hostess needed an extra man and I was pressed into service at the last minute.  Dora was member of a class who collect literary agents, owners of art galleries, and so forth.  A regular socialite with a dubious day job.  She chaired or sat on various committees of good works and social agenda.  So when the writer she invited had to cancel at the last minute, my name was suggested and I was immediately whisked into service to round out the usual cadre of artists, writers, and musicians.  The average upper class individual, or at least those middle class individuals with newly acquired money, love to think that we are extremely interesting and profound.  I’ve never met one of us who were.  But it meant a good mean, good champagne, good wine, and if I was lucky, good single malt.  After the usual grazing of the herd on canapes and champagne we were ushered into the dining room and took our assigned seats.  I was sandwiched between a woman who was a member of the local school board and a man who was a legal counsel for a for one of Dora’s charities.  Michael sat across from me, hemmed in by an outspoken woman performance artist on one side and a well known but, in my opinion, mediocre musician.  I remember being asked to pontificate on a number of idiotic ideas and like a fool I addressed that idiocy as it should have been addressed.  Needless to say I was not employed by the hostess in any capacity in the future.  Several times I caught Michael looking very amused at my comments and once I detected that he actually had great difficulty suppressing laughter at one rejoinder I issued point blank at that local school board member.  I think I called her lack of intelligence on issues of education a crime against humanity.  The lawyer next to me had actually given a hearty chuckle.

 

After the ordeal of dinner was over I had been standing in the corner doing my best wall flower imitation when Michael walked up and said,”Follow me, old man, you look in need of a serious drink.”  I’m not sure if my age was showing that night but I had at least ten years on him.  He led me into what I concluded was the library, for it actually contained a few volumes artfully arranged on built in shelves.  But I would lay odds no one ever opened them. It was apparent he knew his way around the very large house for he went to the right cabinet and pulled out two short glasses and a bottle of Glenlivet.  “Ice or a splash of water?” was all he said.  “Water, thanks.” was my reply.  “Sit down, let’s have a decent conversation.”  I was a little stunned by that remark.  “What’s on your mind?”  “You gave such a splendid performance back there at dinner, I’m sure Dora will hear of it.”  “Ah, is that Ms Worthington’s name?  You must be on intimate terms with her.”  “Oh, by the way, my name is Michael Banks, pardon my manners.  I know her husband, John.  I’m in his law firm as a junior partner.  By the way, I thought the lawyer joke rather funny.”  “Thanks, er.. Michael, if I may call you by your first name.”  “Oh please do, I don’t stand on ceremony.  I’m only here as a favor to John.”  “Mr Worthington?”  We had another single malt and parted our ways for the evening.  I skipped out knowing Ms Worthington would never call upon me again.

 

Michael called me the next Wednesday, would I care to have dinner with him on Friday at Le Bistro?  My first instinct was to turn him down.  I have little in common with lawyers and certainly junior partners with a national reputation are beyond my perceived worthiness.  But I was curious as to why someone like him would wish me for a dinner companion.  I had no money or social position, so the reason intrigued me, I accepted.  “I’ll meet you in the bar.  Just give them your name and a libation will be waiting for you.”  Apparently he knew of my reduced circumstances.  I had a small pension, so I turned to writing thinking I might actually earn a few dollars each month.  The operative word is few, by the way.  And he had the courtesy to suggest a good restaurant that was past it’s incrowd prime but still offered excellent meals at a decent price.  I was at the restaurant at five past the hour for I did not want to appear too desperate not inconvenience him by being fashionably late.  I shouldn’t have worried, he was fifteen minutes late and most apologetic for his tardiness.  His mother had taught him good manners, that was a mark in his favor.  The decor was understated in accord with the idea that the parton should be delighted with the food and not the embellishments of the room.  I was half way through the standard serving of a very nice but not well know white burgundy, a village Meursault of good vintage.  My enjoyment of the wine was evident when he came in.  He asked me what I was drinking and I told him.  “Ah yes, a very good wine, excellent value.  It has nice legs, a hint of floral notes, a touch of citrus, and acid enough for the long haul.  How did you come to chose that one?”  Michael was a man who knew his wines well.  So my credentials were offered by way of a few past wine experiences and we felt an immediate bond.  We went in to dinner and got down to cases.  I need not bore you with the menu and wine list, let’s just say it was a very good meal, the finest I have had in the last five years.

 

“You’ve guessed I have an ulterior motive in asking you to dinner.”  “Well, yes, I am hardly in your social crowd and the thought did occur to me.”  “Let me put you at ease.  Dore is not the reason you are here although she is very put out by you.  She was trying to convert that ignorant Ms Meacham to her cause.  You’ve set Dora’s plans back by a month.  But to continue, I became aware that you are the father of Ms Rebecca Lynn, are you not?”  “Yes, but what does my daughter have to do with all this?”  “Simple, your daughter is a member of a dance group run by Paula Johnson.”  “Yes, go on, how does this affect me?”  “Since I do not know either woemn and would like an introduction to Paula Johnson I thought perhaps you might arrange with your daughter to introduce me to Ms Johnson.  I’m afraid that if I tried to do it myself I would be looked upon in a most unfavorable light.”  “You mean something akin to a stage door johnny?”  “Yes, yes, that’s what I thought.  And while tonight’s dinner was an obvious bribe, please don’t get me wrong.  I rather like you, you have that odd sense of humor.  You have wit and intellect.  I think you might like to see me in a more relaxed setting with a few of my more modest friends.  We all aren’t society hounds.”  “So why this woman and wouldn’t it be more direct to intrude upon her at some social bash or something?”  “Paula is too busy for such trash as Dora and her friends.  And Paula is a bit of a recluse, likes to guard her privacy, hates society parties.  I mean, I’ve tried, but no gambit seems to get past her defenses.  Look, this is not a case of unrequited love or anything like that.”  “Well, I’ll broach the subject with my daughter.  I can’t say how much influence Rebecca has since she is a substitute for the regular dance cast.  But tell me, if you wouldn’t mind, just what attracts you to Paula?  What do you see in that woman?”  “I suppose I could say that I see the grace and style of the world at dance in her movements and that her smile was line the sun shining just for me.  The fact is, I saw an interview of her last year and she touched my heart.  There is something that rings true in her, reverberates in my soul, if you understand my meaning.  I think, given a chance, we might find a way to make our burden’s less odious.  But until I do meet her and have some time spent talking with her I doubt I shall ever know.”  “Then I will enlist my daughter’s aid to get your foot in the door, so to speak.  After that is shall be up to you to make your plea.”  “Thanks so much, Bill.  You don’t mind my calling you Bill, do you?”  “Only my friends have that right, Mike, and I think you just may qualify on that point.  I shall talk with my daughter and see what can be done.”  Well, you should have seen the grin on Mike’s face.  Like a little child with a lollipop in hand.  He ordered some port and a plate of Stilton, walnuts, and gravenstein apple slices.

 

So the following week I talked with my daughter.  We met at the theater during rehearsal.  When a break came for the company we huddled in the front row seats and I outlined my dilemma.  I had a friend, Michael, who would appreciate a private audience with Paula as I tried to so delicately put it.  We did not notice Paula as she stood just behind us but out of our of direct sight.  I heard Paula’s voice in that quiet assertive way ask me who did I think I was to come here to her theater and try to monopolize one of her girls?  Rebecca turned around and said, “I’m sorry madame, this is my father and he had some important information for me.”  “Oh!  I though he  was hear to play cupid.  I have been listening.  Am I to be the target of one of his arrows?”  By now I was very red faced and was stammering what poor apology I could muster.  “Oh, please don’t go on like that, Mr Lynn.  Now tell me more about this secret admirer.” The stage manager called “Time, Places.” But Paula held up her hand while the company dithered a bit on the floor.  I tried to be succinct in my message, it took about five minutes.  “I can’t be sure but my opinion is that he is interested in you as an individual.  Call it a simpatico attraction, if you will”  “Interesting.” was all she said.  “Stay here for a moment or two.  Rebecca, time to join the rest.”  Then she quickly glided over to a man standing by the person I thought was the stage manager.  I saw him disappear for a few minutes and then return to the foot lights.  He came down to the row where I was sitting and handed me an envelope.  “Madame says to give you this.”  Turning, he took two steps and leaped upon the stage.  I had just spoken to one of the principle male leads.  I looked into the envelope and saw a pair of tickets for Saturday’s premier and an invitation to the backstage reception after the performance.

 

I made a point of phoning Michael and telling him I had to see him at once.  I wouldn’t say one way or another, but I told him that if necessary I would stop by his offices if he deemed me presentable.  “Of course, old man, do come on by.”  When I stepped out of the elevator there was a young man waiting for me.  Since I did not look like the client type he came over immediately and said, “Mr Banks is waiting for you.  I’ll show you in.”  Mike rose from his chair when I came in, he was wearing that grin of anticipation as I approached his desk.  Sit down Bill, please.”  “Sit yourself down first, you might faint.”  I handed the envelope to him as he sat back in his seat.  He took the tickets out slowly and seemed quite amazed.  “No one has been able to get tickets for me to this event, not fifth row center, no one!”  Then he saw the cards for the reception.  His shoulders collapsed and his head sloped forward in thought.  A few seconds later he looked at me and said,”How on earth did you ever do it, Bill?”  ” I think Paula wants to meet you.” was all I could say.  I think you can guess the rest of the story.  My daughter finally obtained her dream and became a regular member of the dance troupe.  She will, of course, never be another Paula but I hear she has a junior law partner interested in her.  I am still writing and trying to sell short stories to whoever will publish them.  And I have a book started, one I think just might see the light of day.  Dora has forgiven me, she wants me to use my supposed influence to get Paula into that society social circle of hers.  But I demuir, claiming that I am just an acquaintance and have no powers of friendship.  I also never review this secret hideaway to anyone.  It’s more than a secret, its a good way of life.  Life and love are too precious to waste on superficial people.

 

Dance with me.  I want to be your partner, can’t you see.  The music is just starting, night is calling, and I am falling.  Orleans

Operator

Everyone has a picture of what they believe their life will be like.  Some are so sure that they have this movie script complete with technicolor.  But that time between teenage adolescent and adulthood is a slipper slope and some find to going difficult.  to say there is often confusion in the minds of these young individuals is to issue a broad understatement.  When I was in the service my speciality was communications and I had my fingers in a lot of pies.  I dealt in a black market, but I took payment only in favors, never money.  Money is too easy to trace and I was no fool.  an article fifteen is not the same as a military court marshal conviction and ten years in Leavenworth.  Besides, favors are a lot harder to trace and easier to cover.  The service is a harsh teacher of life and successful attitudes.  Either one performs or one doesn’t and in Vietnam that difference could prove deadly.  So I traded favors.  I also formed a network of favor traders.  I mean, maybe someone wants a 45 caliber sidearm he normally wouldn’t be issued.  Well, what do you have to trade for it?  Maybe you can’t directly trade but maybe you know one or two others who can assist you in this trading business.  You know, this is how economics works, the whole present value thing reduced to what do you have to trade and what is it worth?  Bartter operates on the idea that everyone has something to trade and wants something in return.

 

Now this kid came to me because he had heard that I could arrange things.  He seemed to be a good kid, unassuming and somewhat truthful.  Well, you’d be surprised how truthful people can get when they want something and you press them hard enough.  I deal in black market favors, you know, I don’t have time for clowns and idiots nor do I want to spend ten years in Leavenworth.  And true enough, given a little time I could usually find a way to satisfy all parties.  I didn’t deal with officers for the simple reason that they couldn’t be trusted.  They were two faced sons of bitches and I did them no favors.  An officer and a gentleman my ass.  But sergeants were different.  I knew how to get around inspectors when it came to imports and exports.  You just had to have something to trade.  Back to the kid.  He was a driver in transportation, a PFC driving a two and a half ton straight truck between the big bases.  He was in a jam because, as he put it, he wanted to make sure that his girl knew he wanted to marry her when he got back.  You know how that goes, you’re gone and the girl thinks you have access to harems and somehow you are going to forget all about her.  Hey, it’s a legitimate concern and this kid wants to make sure that she is tying the yellow ribbon around his tree and not some other guy’s.  So he wants a phone call or as many as he can get, back to the states.  He didn’t know it, but he had something to sell.   The only guys who had direct line back to the states were the SAC people.  One didn’t believe that the SAC people were on any of our bases, but they were.  sure, the B-52s were out of Japan, Okinawa, and guam, but the older B-47s were SAC and the Australian Air Force.  They called them Canberra bombers but these were the older Boeing made bombers.  The question was, what did the SAC telephone operators want?  Well, maybe a few cases of beer would do the trick, so I sent the kid to enquire since he wanted the telephone calls.  Well, he came back crest fallen.  They wanted a couple of quarts of Jack Daniels.  Not that hard to come by if one knew where to look.  What did a supply sergeant for the officers club need?  He wanted to send a bunch of souvenirs back to his brother in the states.  But all shipments were to be searched for drugs and AK-47, while not exactly drugs were automatic weapons.  Okay, the MATS guys had the C-140s, what would they take to slip a couple of crates aboard their aircraft?  They flew out of Cam Ram Bay and they wanted better quarters.  Would they settle for their own clubhouse?  Yes they would.  Wow, this is getting very complicated.  Let’s see, who would build the clubhouse?  Ah. Seabees, of course.  What would they want in return?  a couple of cases of Jim Beam.  where do we get the supplies for the building.  Ah, Army Corp of Engineers.  What did they want?  They wanted a walk-in cooler and quite a number of cases of beer.  Uh, no can do.  But how about a couple of refrigerators and say twenty cases of beer?  Done deal.  You see, barter is about locating the various wants and needs so that they can be exchanged.

 

Now one of the advantages of being in communications is that quite a bit of “intelligence” moved through our hands.  I knew where to locate a couple of refrigerators that had been destined for officers clubs.  Those brass hats would never miss them, just send more next time.  Besides, it was easy to duplicate request and get extra in country.  And as I suggested to my boy in transportation, why not use that five fingered discount to supply the SAC operators?  It was easy enough to sent some messages to the right people to have him assigned to pick up goods at certain warehouses.  I mean, I was developing a license to steel here.  Eventually the favors get done because people have the ability to fudge one way or the other.  You see, it is really just a matter of keeping track of the favors owed and delivered.  As for the kid who just had to talk to his girlfriend back home, that went on for several months.  He kept that spark of romance alive while he served his time.  In the meantime he became one of my trusted transport workers.  You know, with a little bit of ingenuity one can transport a B-52 under the nose of any MP, or officer, for that matter.  The MPs are a little smarter in my book.  He was a hard worker and I do believe that we own him more favors than he collected.  But he was a gracious individual and declined more than he needed for his own use.  I mean, that is the meaning of teamwork, seeing that people feel they have a stake in the system and that the systems gives them their due.  Why generals find that so hard to understand is beyond me.  So this kid, name was Eddie, by the way.  Kind of figures it should be Eddie, you know.  He was a good guy, a stand up kind of guy.  Put one of his buddies into the program.  That is enough to renew your faith in human nature.  Yes, many of our deals came to pass and those that didn’t, no hard feelings.  But as I said, the minute you turn it into a cash operation you leave a trail and hard feelings.  So when it came my turn to rotate to the states I left my operations to a couple of gentlemen who promptly went to a cash and carry system.  Last I heard, they were doing ten years in Kansas.  Yeah, they tried to implicate me but there was only their word.  No Office of special Investigations would bother me when there was no evidence to tie me to anything.  A favor is quid pro quo, but greed knows no such bounds.  It’s your word of honor the way cash never can be.  A man’s honor determines his character, cash has no honor or character.