One Toke Over The Line

When Colorado passed the Marijuana Initiative  I couldn’t help thinking about the “old days”.  By that I mean the mid to late sixties of my impressionable years of youth.  The Baby Boomers were the last generation to have to face a military draft.  So many of us were shuffled through the military as callow youths and two or three years later we emerge, on average, no worse for wear.  True a few died, many more were wounded to some degree, and then there were the walking wounded.  Those are the ones who came back with the problematic conditions of being unable to adjust to the realities of life.  I am not sure has this comes about.  For every middle class kid who goes off to serve his country there are several working class kids who do the same.  Some of us, like myself, come back with a lot of built up anger inside.  Call it the accumulation of mistreatments we collect every day for two or three years.  Or perhaps it’s just the fact that we don’t deal with stupidity well.  Others see things that cause them to retreat from life.  One way to deal with that harsh reality of war, severe wounds, mangled dead bodies, and the loss of your buddies to escape into that blurred world of drugs.  I must admit that I had a serious problem in tech school.  I go addicted to tranquilizers, pain killers, and muscle relaxants.  For a couple of months drugs own my mind before a doctor made me go cold turkey.  For others, things like boredom, pressure from superiors, the general treatment received in service life, all these were excuse enough to try a little pot.  You see, beer wasn’t that easy to get as an enlisted man and hard alcohol damn near impossible unless you new an NCO who would buy it for you.  Besides, the beer was a joke, all the government would sell was 3.2 and you’ll piss it away long before you get enough of a buzz to make much difference.  On the other hand, there were half a dozen dealers in your company and the supply of pot seemed almost endless.  They tell me it was good stuff, too, like Hanoi Red, and Thai stick (combined with opium), and some good Cambodian weed.  the names were colorful and I have forgotten most of them.  But drugs weren’t to my liking.

 

On the other hand, some of the grunts I worked with thought nothing of toking once, twice, maybe three times a day.  I was not in a combat unit.  My group was communications and we laid the telephone cables, placed the poles, strung the wire, did the repair, all that stuff that rarely gets you killed.  Yeah, we had a casualty at least once a month because someone got careless or was in the wrong place when the rocket landed, but we were not the hero types.  Some of us, when our hitch was done went to work for the phone company.  That is where I met Bob Day.  He was hired a year before me because he was a draftee, two years active and one reserve.  I was a full three year man, regular Army.  There was a guy from combat engineers working on the crew, another who had seen all his service in Germany, lucky dog, Louis Diaz, ex door gunner, Gene, three year Navy man on a submarine, and an ex marine, saw action in the DMZ.  The other members were older and may have had their draft time and may have not, didn’t really matter.  I think there were two guys our age whose draft numbers were high and never got called.  Out of all of these guys, Bob was the most personable, that popular type in high school.  I would bet he never really had much in the way of any real achievements in life but he was popular.  Good with the jokes, seemingly even tempered, you know the type.  He probably would have made foreman in three to five years if he had had any ambition.  From what I could tell, you made foreman for one of three reasons: you were popular with men on the crew, you had some arcane technical knowledge, or at least they thought you did (one of the foremen was suppose to be a wiz at using a piece of equipment in trouble shooting but I never saw him use that equipment effectively, always some reason why the machine failed), or you were good buddies wit the second line manager.  On occasion the company would screw up and actually promote on real merit.  Yeah, I though Bob was on the track for promotion.  Now me, well, I’ve never been popular, can’t play the kiss kiss game, and don’t have some great and glorious technical knowledge.  If I got any special favors they would be few and far in between.

 

I talked with Bob on occasion, he seemed to be a nice guy.  He never saw combat, had been a desk jockey in supply.  I suppose that is where he acquired his pot habit.  I mean, this was not the recreational use stuff promoted by pot smokers in Colorado.  He had no war wounds for which he needed pot as his painkiller of choice.  He just had a habit that he indulged several times a day.  For him it was at least one a day while at work and if Red was around, Dave Mueller, then why not another hit?  Dave was another one of those popular types and eventually they were both put on the same crew doing important but minimum work.  About a year later I remember chancing upon Bob near the end of the day.  He needed help with a particular operation and since I was the closest one I was elected.  As we worked together he started telling about his marriage and how hi wife was leaving him.  He was a bit depressed over the fact that she was moving about two hundred miles to a different city and taking their little girl with her.   Well, one of my rolls is father confessor and since I was more stranger than friend he chose to confide in me.  It is almost a fact that we will tell strangers far more of our troubles than our friends since we don’t care what strangers think of us.  I could tell Bob was having his problems.  I don’t care what potheads tell you, it affects their work, I’ve seen it too many times to farr that that nonsense.  Bob had been making mistakes and finally I just shooed him on back to the garage while I finished up.  The next morning he came up to me and was thanking me for helping him.  He seemed to be a little worried that I might tell the rest of the crew.  So I reassured him that, hey, no problem, we all have one of those days.  but a couple of months later it was obvious that he was having one, then two, then three of those days too many.  And one day he had an accident, broke his arm.  I didn’t see Bob for about six weeks.  Then one day he showed back up for work.  I don’t think the time off had done much for him as he looked a little haggard.

 

A month after that I chanced to work with Bob on a job.  We got along okay, I’ve had better partners and I’ve had worse.  “My wife obtained a restraint order against me, said I was a bad influence on my daughter.”  “Really, why is that?”  “She thinks I smoke too much pot.  She says it’s not good for ‘her’ daughter to seen me smoking pot.  Like the kid can really tell the difference between my joint and the cigarettes I smoke.”  “You’d be surprised, Bob, kids notice far more than we think.  They may not be sophisticated but they ain’t dumb.  Know what i mean?”  He thought about that for a couple of minutes as we worked side by side.  “Maybe you’re right.  Yeah, maybe yo’re right.”  We stopped for lunch an hour later and I could tell that Bob still had a lot on his mind.  It was as if he was trying to come to some understanding, some decision.  Just before we buttoned the work up for the day he told me.  “I think I’m going to change, at least cut down on my pot.  You know?  Got to see my little girl again.”  I didn’t work with Bob or even speak with him again for another two months.  I had to stop by his job site to let him know I would be working in the same cable, a sort of courtesy call.  We passed the time of day for a few minutes, then he told me, “It’s really hard to stop.  I’ve tried and tried, but I just can’t do it.  I just can’t….you understand, don’t you?”  “Yeah, I understand.  Like trying to quite smoking.  You know, I quit smoking before I went in the Army but every think the drill sergeant said ,’smoke em if you got em.’ well, I just had to start up again.  You know?”  “Yeah, thanks, I know, yeah, ah…, yeah, you’re right.”

 

I wish I had a better something better to offer Bob right then.  He needed more than I could give him, he needed what he could give himself and yet wouldn’t.  I never saw Bob after that.  He had gotten a transfer to some remote corner of the state.  I heard indirectly that he had acquires one girl friend after another and had almost lost his job.  I lost contact with most of those guys I worked with when I went inside, started working in the electronics side of the phone company.  That was a whole nother world, as they say.  Most of the linemen and cable splicers as well as the installers were laid off and went to work for contract companies.  No union so you had to hustle if you wanted work.  I doubt Bob would have made the transition, he was always one toke over the line.

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Sweet Blindness

Her father called her Prudence but friends knew her as Pru. She was the daughter of a Pentecostal Baptist minister and was know for the very conservative clothing she wore in school. But looks are deceiving and Pru was not to be judged by her cover nor by her “official” behavior. I had a few classes with Pru and I must confess, she seldom looked my way. Tall, thin, with high cheekbones that gave her face a definite heart shape, and a mane of black hair held back with a broad white ribbon, that is the image she portrayed. Most of us would guess she was meant to be a minister’s wife by age twenty one. the man would be of her father’s choosing, of course.  The Reverend Mr Black was well deserving of his name, for the man was tall and wiry with the same full head of black hair and very piercing gray eyes.  I never saw him in any suit but black, as if life was a continuous funeral.  Pru had her mother’s eyes, a kind of light blue like the early morning sky, still pale and just waking up.  Mrs Black, I never knew her given name as Pru always called her Momma and her father always referred to her as Mother, was of middling height and a little more full in both body and face yet she had not succumb to that middle age expanse of skin and weight most mothers of teenage girls acquire as their submission to retirement from child rearing.

 

Fate, or chance, depending on whether one is religious, took part in my affairs during my senior year.  Pru was failing geometry and she needed a math class for graduation.  I was a wiz at it and was not adverse to being her tutor.  So the math teacher introduced us and made out a schedule for our tutor sessions in the last hour of classes for the day.  You might remember, the one devoted to clubs or study hall.  It took me a couple of weeks but I helped her understand not only geometry but how to learn it, how to think through the problems.  Now at first Pru was quiet and reserved, but I, being as I like to think, a natural clown, had caused her to let down some of those defenses and she became quite charming in manner.  She too, had a sense of outrageous humor that had been suppressed by her father’s religious view of the world.  I can still remember to this day the grin on her face as she cracked her first pun, oh what a shameful expression.  Oh, there was no thought of romance, not that I wasn’t willing, but because she never regarded me as anything other than a casual friend.

 

I was invited one night, a Tuesday because that was the one night that Pru’s father wasn’t at the church with some committee or bible study group or other such work.  The Rev Black wanted to meet the boy who had guided his daughter through the educational sea to safe harbor, as he put it.  I did not make a good impression, to say the least.  Oh, I looked clean cut, my parents wouldn’t let me do the long hair (at least I didn’t have to get those horrid crew cuts), and my dress was not the most preppy by any means.  No, there were three things that happened that night.  First, I knew little about the bible.  My parents were Methodists and the new Methodist church didn’t go in for bible study as a rule.  Rev Black saw that as a sin against god and told me as much.  The second event is that I cracked a few jokes and Rev Black though such levity was frivolous to good living and belief in god.  And the third event was that Pru forgot herself and actually made a pun, most unintentional, but its presence did not please her father.  After diner there was the formal dismissal of thank you for your help and nice to meet you, but no please come and see us again sometime.  I got the hint, not that I am all that socially adept.

 

The next time I saw Pru, it was Friday.  Her mother had called the school to report, not excuse, mind you, that Prudence was ill and would return that Friday.  All that Friday she avoided my glances and didn’t wish to acknowledge my presence, I was a stranger.  So when study hall came I cornered her in the hall just outside the door.  “Pru, what’s wrong?  Did I do something wrong, something to hurt you?”  “No, nothing.  You did nothing.” And then Pru turned and went to her assigned seat.  She kept up the pretence for two weeks and then finally came to me during the lunch period.  “Let’s go outside an talk for a few minutes.”  Pru led the way and I followed meekly, I mean she seemed so serious.  We sat on one of the bleacher seats and she began by putting her finger to her lips when I attempted to speak.  “You’ve opened up a world to me, not a very big world, but big enough to make me think.  My father was furious with my behavior that night at dinner.  It was the first time we ever had humor in the house.  By the way, He thinks you are possessed by the devil.”  I laughed at that thought.  I am not very religious and was in my own rebellion against the religious authority my parents sometimes tried to exercise on me.  Pru continues in that quiet voice of hers: “Father spent a lot of time trying to exercise that “devil inspired” humor from me and it took two days.  I eventually had to go along with him and go through all the confessing and acts of atonement and believing and, well, it was a “Come to Jesus” moment.  Not that I have changed or accepted what he wills for me.”  I was kind of stunned that a father would do that.  I mean I knew some girls whose fathers were strict and some whose fathers really didn’t give a shit.  Bu I never knew one who would stoop to that depth of dominance.  I mean, from early childhood on I had been beaten by my father a few times and really didn’t like being around him.  But to me her house was like a prison.

 

We sat and talked about other things for a few minutes and then she stood up.  “Mike, maybe we can talk a little over the next few months until graduation.  I’d like that.”  “Pru, just tell me where and when, I’ll be there.”  I felt a slight bond between us.  I found out later that children who are beaten by either the hand or the brow seem to be attracted to others of similar circumstance.  Others may not understand but I always though of it as our own red badge of courage.  The next few months until summer arrived and signaled the end of innocent childhood Pru and I did talk a dozen times or so.  Mostly for the reassurance, I think, but also for some new perspectives on the world.  That fall I left for college, a small liberal arts school that my parents could afford and that would accept my poor grades.  I occasionally wrote to Pru by way of a mutual friend or she would never have received my letters.  Back then, legal age was twenty one and colleges exercised parental control over the undergrads.  Most underage drinking went on in the fraternities and I was never considered for membership.  I had to sneak my beer and alcohol by other means and make sure it was kept well hidden in my dorm room.  We had our monthly inspections for clean bodies and clean minds.  Even Playboy was forbidden lest we forget the reason for marriage and especially sex under the sanctity of holy wedlock.

 

By my third year my mutual friend began to report those chances in Pru that were causing concern not only in her family but in my friends minds.  Not soon into my first year of college pru had found the taste of cheap wine intoxicating.  And that taste kept growing as long as she was kept in her prison.  By the middle of the third year her father had arranged her marriage to a young minister a year out of seminary.  There was to be a June wedding.  I use the past tense because there would be no wedding, not then and not to him.  Pru was becoming an alcoholic and in that May had run away with a man who drank heavily as well.  They eloped and spent half a dozen unhappy years together.  Maybe it was the need to take that bad tasting medicine for a long time that made the difference.  I caught up with her ten year later.  she was sober, clean as AA says.  Pru worked in a Goodwill store in the very town I had settled seven years before.  My first job and I was still single, still living a bachelor’s life.  The booze has changed her, given her added age to her face.  But her thinness persisted, still very trim in her late thirties.  Pru’s voice had gained a little of the gravel that sometimes afflicts alcoholics, but her eyes were clear and for the first time I saw them dance.  She was another woman, no longer the old Pru I knew.  I took her out to dinner and we sat and talked for a few hours.  She was now full of laughter with that sense of irony that only strong conflict can bring out.  “I never knew what life could be, never knew there was anything more to life that total devotion to some god.”  “Did you lose your faith” I enquired?  “No, I gained it back, I took it back from my father.  It now belongs to me.”  I saw a bit of defiance in her eyes and that telltale firmness in her chin.  “How are your parents?”  “I don’t know.  We’ve never spoken and I’ve never been back.  I am dead to my father and that’s enough for me.”  “Do you have a love interest these days?”  “There is one man, a good man, a kind man.  We see each other and talk over lunch.  Sometimes we go to the movies.  I think he want’s to ask me but he’s not sure yet.  We both need time.  You know, love take time and I can wait.”  “Sounds like sweet blindness.”  Pru just laughed at the reference.

Wedding Bell Blues

A friend of mine has been so close to marriage with the same woman I fear it may never happen and yet it seems probable. I can’t say why or how or when, but my gut feeling is that they will one day tie the knot if only in old age and about to die and be buried. Did you ever have a pair of friends like that?  Now I knew Bill from my time in the service, we had survive Vietnam together and he was an engaging fellow.  You know, the type, quick wit, mannered and polite, not your ordinary six pack beer drinking good old boy.  Not that I have anything against good old boys.  Corporal Treadaway was certainly one of Georgia’s finest examples and a hell of a good friend in a fire fight, lord has mercy.  But Bill was a bit different from the norm.  He never made rank beyond private first class, not for lack of leadership ability but it spite of it, if you know what I mean.  He was never deemed worthy in military terms and yet the squad, perhaps the entire company would have followed him into the jaws of hell itself.  Well, just saying.

 

Marilyn was bill’s girlfriend, his fiancee, if you like.  Not that there was ever a formal pledge of troth between them, just an understanding, much like a gentleman’s agreement, to use an old outdated term.  If anything, Bill was a man of honor, it set a standard among the platoon.  but all good things must come to an end, if one can call time spent in the years of compulsory service to one’s country.  And the assumption was that when Bill went home it would be the start of a new life with wife and children and some suitable job that paid the bills (no pun intended).  My own life plans when I returned, home form the hill, was a stint in college and then that promised middle class life on saw in Look and Life magazines.  But he who travels on the GI Bill travels best alone.  I put aside all thought of hearth and family and kin gathered round the yule tide table with figgy pudding and roast goose.  I thought that bill would make that transition to local job and family but I was surprised to hear that such was not the case.  The marriage was to be put off momentarily.  Bill, had of all things, become a rough neck in the oil patch and that meant long periods away from home.  Well, I can understand, what right does a man have to tie a woman down to the life of a nomad.  He said that he needed a nest egg for their happiness, or at least his.  Men like some sense of independence and being tied to a skirt was demeaning.

 

I had graduated with a degree in English and Literature, the thinking was that I would become the next great American novelist.  Such lofty goals and apparently so little talent, what can I say, I over estimated my abilities.  So I took a job as a technical writer for an Oil company, of all things.  Good thing I have a good sense of mechanical application, something I credit to my father and brothers.  Bill was working steadily in Texas, Oklahoma, and several other states.  He wrote and said he was saving quite a bit of money and he might be ready to go into business for himself.  What kind of business, I asked?  Oil field supply replied he.  Two years later he was broke and Marilyn was assuming the role of old maid.  I told him, “Damn it, marry the woman, come hell or high water.  She deserves better than to be kept waiting.”  “no”, was his answer, “I want it all to be right.”  Well, it seemed that Smokey and the Bandit was sweeping the country and Bill became a truck driver.  He was home so little that one wondered if he was still alive.  Yet he had a plan.  He would become an owner operator and then turn independent trucker, maybe start his one specialized transportation company.  There was money to be made hauling windmill blades cross country.  Well, next thing you know is that he now has five trucks and four drivers working for him and he is back to making some money.

 

Then came the raging inflation and the very high fuel prices and that put him right out of business again.  I was beginning to think his run of bad luck might be perpetual.  Mean while Marilyn was remaining true to him.  Not like she didn’t have the sharks circling round her hose every night.  Let me tell you, Marilyn was one of those women one dreams of having as a wife.  she is self sacrificing, loyal, loving, devoted, well I could go on with her virtues.  Lets just say that she was a good hearted woman in love with a good timing man.  Oh, not that Bill was on the make or involved with other women.  His virtue was that he was just as loyal to Marilyn as she to him.  Now it was a year after his last bankruptcy and Bill was down on his luck, so to speak.  Hell, let’s not mince words, he hadn’t a penny to his name and Marilyn provide him with a new stake.  At times I could have wept for them.  But I could have wept for myself as well.  the oil company didn’t need my services any longer and I was cast adrift.  Well, from technical writing I went into the machine shop business.  I had some savings, a partner, and a bank loan.  We made good on the investment and the work load keeps us busy.  I was now officially middle class with the income to show for it.  A least I put away a goodly portion for my old age.  I guess the third times a charm for Bill had finally stumbles upon something that was needed, was profitable, and would give him security for the next twenty or forty years,  Without benefit of university classes, Bill had become a fiction writer.  He found that secret to story telling that is so elusive to those of us who would write.

 

I talked with him at length one night and he told me that once he understood how to tell a story the rest was a breeze.  He said the stories just flowed, as if by magic.  One day you didn’t have a clue as to write a story and the next stories came pouring out.  So now it is almost twenty years later and he is a well know author making a decent living.  Seems he is reaching that middle class status we all longed for but had difficulty reaching.  I received a letter in the mail last week from Bill, he wanted to know if I would do the honors of being best man.  Seems he was determined to make an “honest” woman of Marilyn.  He was going to put an end, as he put it, to her “wedding bells blues.”

If I Could Keep Time In A Bottle

If I could keep time in a bottle would I lock it up and hoard it away, keeping eternity at bay? Or would I measure very carefully each precious second and minute so as to not waste a drop? What should I do with all that time concentrated in my hands waiting to be let out, like a Genie in a bottle, waiting to do my bidding?  Jim Croce had his own idea about saving time in a bottle since it was a love song to his wife.  No, damn it!  Elton John never wrote it, he bought it from the estate.  Jim died in an airliner crash and left behind a wife and two children.  Elton John bought a couple of Jim’s big hits, and there were hits long before elton ever sang a note of any of them.  Croce sang in bars and joint, working his way up to clubs and finally got a break when a few of his recorded hits made the top 100 and even the top ten.  Man, ten, fifteen years of grueling work and the man is on his way.  Hardly anytime to enjoy his fame when the bottom drops out.  The young don’t know your name.  Back about 2002 I remember calling up a DJ on public radio who caller Time In A Bottle an Elton John song.  She thought he wrote it.  I read her the riot act.  If I could save time in a bottle, the first thing I’d like to do, is to bring back all the young musicians who died and see what they still could do.

 

George Gershwin, a name most Millennials and few Slackers know and yet his influence in the American music scene gave us a sense of place.  I am amazed that the world knows Gershwin and yet most Americans have forgotten him.  He wrote the music and his brother, Ira, wrote the lyrics of a great number of popular music.  But it was George’s foray into the world of classical composition that shook up the older generations and put the world on notice that here, at last, was a composer for the twentieth century.  Who in modern times can compete with such a master?  All over the world his American Opera is played to sold out audiences.  Porgy and Bess, the music and the lyrics are very haunting.  The opening number, “It’s Summer Time” and the living is easy.  Leontyne Price does perhaps the best rendition of that song.  Her performance still sticks in my mind so many decades after she recorded that tune.  George died at 38 from a brain tumor, a great loss of talent.  The pantheon of musicians and writers who died so early in life has become so crowded.  A tip of the hat to Robert Okaji for remembering the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin, another early death.  Yes, if we could save time in a bottle, just think what we could do.  We could spend an eternity keeping them working all for the likes of me and you.

 

With all our time saving devices one might think that saving time in a bottle a very practical application of the space time continuum.  I fear all we will ever do with the promise of time saving devices and waste instead of accumulate time.  Perhaps we might take a different look at time and learn to spend it wisely.  Of course there are times when no matter how wise we may think we are, life kicks us in the head.  Poor Glen Campbell, a popular singing star, a would be actor, the good life.  A hansom  man blessed with wealth and talent.  Now his time is laid to waste by alzheimer’s.  Linda Ronstadt has parkinson’s disease and will never sign another note, hasn’t for several years.  A famous choir director and composer has an aneurysm take out his ability to for any long term or even moderate term memory.  He forgets after less than five minutes what he has said, seen, and done.  Yet his long term memory has not been destroyed, he can still remember the choral works he knew decades ago.  He has time in a bottle but that time is always now.  Time comes in all manner of dimensions and sizes of bottles.

 

Most of all, time is what we make of it.  After all, we are part of that space time continuum, the fabric of the universe, energy and mass that occupies space and time.  That is what we do so well, occupy space and time regardless of moral purpose, for the universe doesn’t give a damn about our morals, such as they might be.  In the world of the physical universe, there are no morals, there is no purpose unto heaven, there is merely existence, the accumulation of mass and energy that occupy space and time.  For us, time matters because our existence matters to us and maybe to a few other individuals.  Beyond that, time has no meaning.  Distance is measured in time.  How much time will it take to go from point A to point B.  Even Zeno’s paradox is about time and distance.  True, it is a false assertion and much discredited.  But it highlights an element of truth.  Before we can go from point A to point Z we must travel halfway to point M.  And before we can reach point M we must travel to point G.  And so on,  constantly halving the distance.  So by that standard, if we try to save time in a bottle, first we must try to save half of it.  But in order to do that we must first save a third, and before that, a quarter, and before that an eight, and before that, a sixteenth, and before that a thirty second, and before that, well one gets the idea.  As babies we would never grow up and become adults.  And the old folk will never get old, babies will never be born, and I’ll never have another birthday celebration.  There is more to time than might meet the eye.

 

But time is distance, the rotations of the earth in regular and periodic turns.  It is space distance because the earth travels around the Sun.    Time is a measure of occurrence.  It is a matter of change.  Could I save distance or change in a bottle?  Maybe, never tried.  Time is not a commodity to be bought and sold for there is no clear ownership that a court of law would uphold.  Time is a way of living, of doing, of perception.