Saturday, December 29, 2012

First Cousin

It was a cold night near the end of 1991. I'd finished berating myself for being a chickenshit wimp, done with giving myself a pass because my dad had died just a few months earlier. I showered, dressed, and drove away from home into the night to Saint John's Hospital in Oxnard, California. I was born there. But for the next few nights, I would keep my cousin Jimmy company. Jimmy was my closest cousin on my mom's side, so it was only right that I would join him at the hospital to watch his dad die.

My uncle Owen was fast losing his fight against prostate cancer. A big, tough man, he'd ignored symptoms until the cancer spread.

I hadn't seen Jimmy in over a decade.  He'd moved to Houston and had nearly severed ties with the family. It didn't feel the same at first; that old cousin bond seemed gone forever, but in the next few nights, it came back.

When my Uncle Owen took his last breath, I stood next to Jimmy. I didn't know what to say, so I just hugged him. My aunt Wanda, Owen's sister, and my uncle Marvin, a retired Navy chaplain, stood weeping in the room with us.

Jimmy left to go home to Texas soon after Owen passed. He didn't offer an address or a phone number. It seemed obvious that he intended to disengage himself from family ties once again. I didn't know why. I still don't.

Jimmy called the night before he left. When I asked him for an address or a phone number, he just changed the subject. But, before he hung up, he said, "Dude, I love you. You've helped me more than you know."

It would be the last time I spoke to Jimmy. My mom told me a couple of years later that she thought he might be in prison, but that the news was sketchy.

I learned yesterday that Jimmy died six years ago, at the age of fifty. No word about the cause of death, or whether he'd left a wife or children behind. Darkness always seemed to rest on Jimmy's shoulder, and I wondered if light had left him for good.

I felt like I halfway grew up with Jimmy. He was my cousin, the same age, and my friend. We did lots of crazy, stupid stuff together. But at the end, he died a stranger, wrapped in mystery.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Not Boring

Last night, after dinner, Dylan accompanied me on his upright bass while I worked on the chord progression for an Uncle Tupelo song. Gosh, he sounded great. The song I was working on is slow, and lent itself well to Dylan using a bow instead of plunking the strings.

Rhonda stood listening and smiling, until she announced it was getting near bedtime. Dylan walked to her and gave her a hug. He leaned back and looked at her with an impish little smile.

"Gosh, Mom, I'm sure getting taller than you."
"Yeah, well, I'll still kick your butt," she said.

She started throwing play punches at his chest and midsection until he collapsed in a chair, helpless with laughter.

The thing is, when Rhonda says, "I'll kick your butt," what we hear is, "You're acting like a booger, but I sure love you."

I took Dylan to school this morning, and during the drive, he repeated something he's said before: "I'm glad I don't have a boring mom." We laughed and swapped Mom stories until we wheeled into school.

I watched him walk into the campus, marveling at, indeed, how tall he's getting. I thought again about the mother of my son, how fun she is, and how easy she is to live beside.

As long as I don't forget the ice cream.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Pondering the Reality of Night and Day

It's funny what can prompt a memory. I just read something on Facebook by author 
Jeff Bennington, and a memory from thirty years ago washed over me.

Here's Jeff's post.
Interesting night: I heard a tapping noise on my bench every few minutes last 
night. It came and went, sometimes every few minutes, sometimes every ten. It 
sounded like someone was tapping the eraser end of a pencil on my desk. When I 
put my hand on the desk where the sound was coming from, my hair stood on 
end--everytime. I could not find a reasonable explanation.

I'd been with my employer for about three years, flying helicopters in the Gulf 
of Mexico, when they asked me if I'd like to transfer to the new base in Santa 
Barbara, California. I grew up in Oxnard, less than an hour away. I didn't have 
to think long about my answer.

When I first moved from Austin, Texas back to Southern California, I stayed with 
my parents. I was back in my old bedroom in my old bed, and one night I started 
thinking about my little kid years, when I was just sure that a monster lived 
under the box spring. My mom and dad were patient about looking under the bed 
for a year or so, but exasperation eventually took root, and they finally 
delivered the big boy law: "You're a big boy now. Quit imagining things and go 
to sleep."

The first night after my parents saddled me with the big boy law, I tried 
talking with the thing under the bed.
"Can you talk?"
"Can you make a sound?"
A faint brushing sound, like someone sweeping the floor a few rooms away. Gulp.
"If you can hear me, poke the bed beneath me."

Immediately, I wanted my words back. My heart hammered, and my mouth went to the 
desert. What the hell was I doing? It felt like an hour passed, but it was 
probably minutes. My heart rate had slowed to something near normal, and I'd 
nearly convinced myself that I was acting like a baby.

Then, I felt a gentle poke through the mattress. My heart raced back from idle 
to fight-or-flight speed.

"Are you going to hurt me? Poke once for yes, twice for no."
One. Two.
My heart began to slow. I started breathing easier. I believed him. It.
"If I shine my flashlight under there, would I see you?"
A pause. Then one. No.
"Is there anything I can do for you?"
"Are you glad I know you're there?"
One. Two.
"Do you want me to talk to you every night?"
"Do you want me to talk to you sometimes?"
One. Two.

So, once a month or so, from the age of six until I turned ten, I talked to him, 
or it. Perhaps four or five times in those years did those subtle pokes come 
through the mattress. Once a year or so, it would let me know it was still 
there, but only after I'd fallen asleep and woken later, and only after 
midnight, as I recall.

In the wee hours, it seemed all so real. But after being awake for a few hours, 
a hard veneer wrapped itself around the memory, and I'd feel just sure that my 
imagination was running away with me. It was a strange dichotomy of perception, 
but it felt comfortable, and just maybe like it was part of some unwritten rule. 
I thought of it as The Daylight Rule: what is real in the night is not real in 
the day.

Fast forward to thirty years ago. I was back in my old bed. I'd moved away after 
going into the Army at the age of eighteen. At the age of twenty-six, I'd all 
but forgotten about it.

Until my third night back in my parents' house, that is. That was when I felt a 
gentle poke through the mattress. It was three in the morning. I chuckled. I 
guess I still have an imagination.  Another poke, but I felt even more sure it 
was my imagination, because it was barely perceptible.

But then, two knocks on my bedroom door. Muffled knocks. Not the kind of knocks 
a person would make. Not the kind of knocks my sister's cat would make when 
she's hungry. I chuckled at myself, amused at how realistic my dream about 
something knocking on my bedroom door seemed. But then, another knock. And 

I was scared, and I laughed at myself for being scared. I was grown man, a 
former soldier, and a big guy. Another knock.

I got up. I walked to my bedroom door. I paused, took a deep breath, and opened 
the door. Nothing.

Nothing, until I looked down the hall toward the living room. There was a shape 
at the entry into the living room. It was about a foot tall, and furry. My 
sister's cat was white. It was not white. It was dark. It moved farther from me. 
I took a couple of steps closer to it, and I sensed that it was about to run.

"I'm sorry," I whispered. There wasn't much light in the living room, but I 
could see its shape, and I detected movement, but not in retreat. It felt as 
much as looked like a wave of a  . . .

What? Hand? Paw?

It moved to the side, out of my field of view. I walked down the hallway and 
into the living room. I heard a soft brushing sound. I turned on the lamp. 
Nothing. Nothing but a feeling, a feeling that something had left, and was not 
coming back.

"Goodbye," I whispered. I went back to my old bedroom, got in bed, and strangely, I felt sad. I felt a little like when my mom told me Santa Claus wasn't real. Somehow, I knew that I wouldn't see or hear from the thing
under the bed again.

Thirty years later, I think back to those nights, and I feel certain that it was 
all part of an elaborate, realistic string of dreams.

At least, I'm certain in the daylight.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Dying Languages

Someone left a copy of National Geographic in the employee lounge the other day, and it had a sad and fascinating article about languages in the world. According to the article, there are 7,000 languages spoken on Earth, but half of them are expected to pass into oblivion by the end of the century.
In Papua New Guinea, only 15 speakers still use Abom. None of them are children. In the Americas, 170 languages may soon pass out of use, including Tataina in southern Alaska, where only 75 people speak the language, most of them older adults. The Native American language of the Wintu peoples, where I live in northern California, has fewer than a half-dozen speakers remaining.
In Asia, only 15 speakers of Ainu remain on the Kuril Islands. In Africa, only 8 people still speak El Mono on the shores of Lake Turkana.
In Europe, only 25 speakers of Vod remain in Russia. Vod has never had a written language, so hopes for its survival are especially dim.
So what's so bad about a language dying out? Isn't that just the natural order of things? Wouldn't we be better off with fewer languages? 
I don't think so. I think the world will be a poorer place with fewer languages. Sometimes, particular words in a language can offer meanings about nature, the world, and life that simply have no translation. Once a language is gone, a unique take on life is gone. Forever.
Particularly sad to me is the possible demise of the Cajun dialect of French in south Louisiana. When I was a new guy with my employer in the late 1970's, such a thought would have been silly. All you had to do on a busy crew change day was open your ears, and you'd hear Cajun French in conversations between oil workers waiting for their offshore flights. You could go into a bar in Lafayette and hear the bartender speaking Cajun French to a patron next to you, seemlessly changing from French to English and back again.
I don't hear Cajun French much anymore. People who live in Lafayette, the "capital of Acadiana," tell me that most children there aren't growing up bilingual as was typical thirty years ago. The Council for the Development of French in Louisiana says that the number of speakers of Cajun French has fallen markedly over the last fifty years, and that body is trying to get the dialect reintroduced in south Louisana schools.
It seems many folks in Louisiana doubt that the Cajun language will even last another generation. I hope they're wrong.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Sean Jacobs Returns Home

I'd gone to the airport to rent a car, and I knew someone was coming home when I spotted the Patriot Guard Riders lined up, starting about a mile from the airport.

Sean Jacobs was his name. He graduated from local Foothill High School in 2006, and graduated from West Point in 2010. He deployed to Afghanistan in April of this year, and returned home on August 6. Sean was a U.S. Army 1st lieutenant when he died.

I learned all of that when I got out of my car to ask about the returning soldier. I stood next to a retired couple, and the wife filled me in.

Most of the Patriot Guard Riders mounted up on their motorcycles and followed the hearse, but as I walked back across the street, I saw one guy standing next to his bike, weeping. He was a mountain of a guy, and wore a Vietnam veteran patch. I felt like I had to say something to him, but all I could manage was "thanks." He offered his hand, and tried to say something. He took a deep breath, and finally said, "He was an only child."

I felt like I'd been punched in the gut. I saw Dylan's face, and wondered what Sean looked like at the same age. I walked to my car and sat inside, pretty much going to pieces.

I heard the mountain man crank his Harley, so I gathered myself, started the car, and followed him out toward Highway 44. For a few miles, I had his back.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Meeting a Hero

One day back in the late 80's, a few of us helicopter pilot types met at the Hitching Post Saloon in Camarillo, California. We played pool and drank beer, but when we paused, my friend and coworker Roger said, "I want you to meet someone."

He led me to the end of the bar where an older gentleman sat sipping whiskey and reading the newspaper.
"Hal, this is R.J." I shook his hand, and was surprised by the strong grip from the slight, weathered-looking man.
"R.J. was one of the Tuskegee Airmen."

I was stunned. There, in front of me, was a man who played a part in military aviation history.

I sat with R.J. for a while. After a couple of beers, I get nosy, so I zeroed in on trying to understand what it was like to be a black man trying to become a pilot in a military where racism was still institutionalized.

The quiet, soft-spoken man had stories. Stories about how some of the training cadre made life unbearable for the Tuskegee cadets, and stories about how ill-received they were upon their deployment to combat.

But, there were also stories of training cadre and commanders who sought to compensate for the hatred the Tuskegee Airmen faced day in and day out. I asked R.J. if anything he encountered during his time as a black aviator had left him bitter.
"Not really," he said. "Except . . ."

He looked at me, seeming to weigh his words.

"They sent several of us to a different base by ground transportation to pick up some P-51's to ferry back to our base. There were only a few of us, with empty seats all around. About halfway there, we stopped at a camp to pick up some German P.O.W.'s. Even after everything we'd lived through, we were still shocked when we were ordered to stand to allow the Germans to sit."

R.J. paused, looking like he was somewhere far away, took a sip of whiskey, and met my eyes again.
"We were fighting for our country. They shouldn't have done that." He didn't look angry. He only looked sad.

He shook my hand again. I'd been dismissed, and I left R.J. alone with his whiskey, his newspaper, and his memories.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Race and the Media

I was heading home on an airline flight, having a engaging conversation with a man who was quite the history buff. We talked about the state of race relations in the United States. I remarked that as far as we'd come in our country, I still felt that it was harder to grow up black in America instead of white.

My friend for a flight ("McFriends" I call them) agreed. We talked about President Obama, and the significance of his election.

Then the conversation turned to the Civil War, and that's when my row mate decided we were no longer McFriends. I remarked that it appeared that Abraham Lincoln was no friend of the black man during his tenure as a congressman. I went on to state my belief that although Lincoln later embraced emancipation, he was not largely motivated to preserve the Union by a desire to end slavery. Instead, I said, it was mostly about money and power, as are most wars.

Not immediately noticing the chill that had come over our conversation, I dropped the real bomb.

"I think the state of race relations would be much better in our country had the Civil War never happened. Between the Civil War itself, and the way that the black man was used as a pawn against southern whites during Reconstruction, it set the stage for a hardened, institutionalized racism in the South that's still there."

The man looked at me with what seemed to be disgust.
"You know, until now, I wouldn't have fingered you as a racist."
"As far as I'm aware, I'm not a racist," I said.
"If you think we'd be better off had the Civil War never happened, you're a racist."

I tried to point out that I was only speaking in terms of how the Civil War and its aftermath affected race relations for generations to come, and that obviously there would have been a plethora of ramifications beyond race relations.

No matter. My McFriend was no longer my McFriend, and in his eyes, I might as well have flashed a KKK membership card.

I'm thinking about that encounter today after reading Bob Barbanes' blog post regarding the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin affair. It appears that the "mainsteam media" has followed the lead of Fox News, deciding to discard the truth to build a big news story.

My God, I hope I never have to take another person's life while defending myself or my family. I remember talking to a retired cop who'd once shot and killed a young man who'd robbed a liquor store, and even though he was a Vietnam veteran, it was evident that the shooting would haunt that man for life.

But I've also had this thought: "If it ever happens, I hope the bad guy is white."

Maybe, in your eyes, that makes me a racist. I think of it as facing reality.

(Thanks to Bob for the link to NBC's apology for their "mistake.")

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Reflecting on a Past Resolution

The New Year's resolution I made and broke this year was the first real resolution I've made in some time.

In fact, the last one I made was about twenty years ago. I know that because it was before Rhonda and I got married.
I realized that I was getting into the unsavory habit of talking about people behind their backs, and it dawned on me I was getting so bad about it that I could have listed backbiting as a hobby.
So, my early-nineties New Year's resolution: "I will not talk about people behind their backs."
Unlike my recent resolution concerning my writing habits, I kept that resolution faithfully, for two months.
After two months, I decided to give up on holding to my resolution. Why? Well, EVERYBODY in the work place started irritating the crap out of me. When someone offered a "good morning," I more often than not wanted to snarl in response. You would have thought I'd given up coffee or something.
So, I went back to talking about people behind their backs, albeit more judiciously. It's an unsavory, low-minded habit, yep.
But in my case, it acts as a relief valve, and makes being civil to assholes more bearable.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

One Resolution Blown to Hell

Well, my New Year's resolution to write six hours a week hasn't come even close to fruition. In fact, Since the end of January, I doubt I've averaged six minutes a week.

I've never really obsessed over getting older. I really don't feel much different than I did twenty years ago; aging so far has brought more positives than minuses.

But now, halfway through my fifties, I'm struck with how time is getting more precious, whether I have one year or forty left on this earth. I'm struck with how much living I've done inside my head, and not engaged with the world in the here and now.

My job takes me away from home, and when I'm away, I grieve over every lost hug, every laugh, every warm moment with my wife and son lost to those wanderings inside my head.

Writing is part of that world, that world inside my head. Sometimes I think it detracts from the riches of my life instead of adding to it. Before I can truly engage with writing as a life journey, I'll have to make peace with the feeling that it could be a detour away from what really matters.

I'm not a writer. I'm a guy who writes now and then.

Will that change? I don't know. I'll have to get back to you on that one.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The New Year

Another year in my life and yours.

River rafting strikes me as a metaphor for life: when you're negotiating the turbulent rapids, your attention is focused on what is to come. But then, in the calm stretches, you have the luxury of looking back and wondering about the meaning hidden in the calm behind you.

Gee. That was so profound, I just want to hurl.

Things change. I learned that a couple of high school classmates died. Some coworkers went to other helicopter operators. People I know moved away from our area.

I came back from two weeks away from home last time, and I wondered if someone slipped some sort of growth formula into my kid's food: he looked nearly as tall as Rhonda, who's five-seven. Sure enough, I put him up against the growth chart, and my eleven year-old son, Dylan, is now five-five. He's grown an inch and a half since September. I fear, with teenage years on the horizon, that we'll have to take out a second mortgage just to feed him.

I realize that my writing dwindled more and more, so I made a modest New Year's resolution: I will write for a minimum of six hours per week. Blogging, working on the anthology, grocery lists, whatever: if I have to set my alarm for an hour earlier a few times a week, I'll get those hours in. Six hours ain't much compared to what serious writers put in, but it would be a marked improvement in output for me.

Happy New Year to all my friends out there, and may the rapids in your life be just frequent enough to give you a renewed appreciation for the calm waters.

But, not so frequent that you wanna hurl.