A SOMETIMES MUSICAL THING. Chapter 2. Church takes forever, then you get liver spots

I think I did a cruel thing, leaving Milton alone to suffer and sing with the ancient ones.  Still, even though church, like most of the Valley, was a flat landscape, he was learning.

The verbal dross so favored by white preachers and followers seemed to be passing over his head, but some of it went in one ear and did not always pass immediately out the other.  For example, Milton was learning to inch his ass over to the left and then to the right in a strange sitting dance designed to find a little comfort, a little relief, as the oak Presbyterian pews turned the pain switch to “high.”

He was forced to think of old Presbyterian pewmakers, who regularly heard things like, “Hey, Smith, you’re making that one too comfortable.  Take out that curvature and make that thing flat, like the others.  No.  Splinters are not necessary, and may be against the teachings of Jesus.  And no screwing up this time.”

He learned about osmosis, which he associated with sea urchins.  Sea urchins, unless eaten by a variety of underwater passers-by, seemed to just sit on rocks under the sea, not saying much, and taking it all in.  Absorbing it. Living it. Being it.  And urchins seemed in no hurry to either learn or do anything.  Really good role models.  Portuguese-looking guys would come along and pry them off the rocks, which caused no response from the urchin community.     But unlike the sea-urchins, Milton just knew that the absorption of information, understood or not, would one day lead to something.  It had to.  Otherwise, what was the point?  Why break your buns in church, however god-fearing and solemn, for the sake of observing a spider snacking on a fly?  No, osmosis would one day save his lame, young ass by forcing him to evaluate his purpose in life while sitting through Sunday morning church services.

“God works in mysterious ways,” Milton was told.  Well, that was just too much mystery for our hero, which is why he favored Jesus, who seemed a simple guy with long, straight hair, blue eyes, and a simple plan.  A plan that Milton planned to figure out someday.

In later years, the classic poem, “Snail’s Progress,” by Alexandra Schwarzkopf, would remind Milton of those mornings spent in church, when he could look at the men singing hymn 309, and know they were thinking about sitting on their porches with a fat cigar.  The women…they were all about a favorite lime jello, the freshness of two-day old celery, and the cooking time needed for a certain sacrificial chunk of beef.  Milton had already intuited (not his word) all he would ever need to know about heaven and hell.  Everything else was a matter of satisfying the observations of older people, who themselves knew the formal and informal rules of the organization game, but who also knew that repetition and boredom were essential parts of life.  Without repetition and boredom, and plenty of it, there could be no mediocre foundation for acceptable accomplishment.  And, please, not a lot of thinking in the process.  You DO NOT want to ruin it for the others.

But, as for today, right now, on this particular Sunday?

Old Mr. Parsons was having a coughing fit, and the hymn ended mercifully at about the Tenth Rising of the Phlegm, which Mr. Parsons swallowed, causing all parishioner thought to anticipate the next cough, the next hack.  Then the service was over, and the boredom and the osmosis could wait another week!

What was extra special about the last note of the last hymn, besides the rediscovery of fresh air, was when a hound, sitting on the steps of the First Church of Christ Scientist, yeah, some hound over there, began to sing an incredibly loud, mournful hound-song it had picked up from the Presbyterians!  There was a shadow of a melody, which, when you concentrated and closed your eyes just so, sounded like “Onward Christian Soldiers!”  It was the only time Milton could remember having an ability to both speak and understand dog, in English.  Some friends thought him funny, while others thought him a liar, even though they, too, heard that mournful dog on that day.

A church bell rang…the Methodists.  And then another, the Episcopalians.  Pretty soon that whole part of town was filled with old white people, some in their thirties, surrounded by running, yelling children.  A few of the older old white people waited for Milton to screw up, and he could sense the expectation.  Well, screwing up was what he did…it was who he was.

But just before he let fly with a rock at a huge black and orange cat with a snaggle tooth, some sweating, extra-large-size woman in a stiff root-beer colored taffeta dress yelled, “I know who you are and I am telling your mother and father so you better tell me your name!”

“What did I do?” asked Milton, rock in hand.

Taffeta Root Beer said, “You were going do something bad, so I want you punished.”

Years later, Milton would add blown-up water buffalo limbs to the list of NVA, Viet Cong, ARVN, and South and North Vietnamese civilian dead, to be added to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s daily Vietnam War body count.  Before he died a miserable man, McNamara confessed that the United States had, in fact, destroyed humans and livestock and homes and children and crops and trees and canals and whatever the hell else high explosive, napalm, and a whole variety of bombs which might destroy from high, medium and low altitudes.  And don’t forget the artillery.  Grunts on the ground often added their share under the old Crusader saw, “Kill ’em All.  Let God sort ’em out.”  If there was anything moving in a certain death zone at a certain time, it was killed.

Robert McNamara was one of America most intelligent dumb sons of bitches to ever put on a pair of wire-rimmed granny glasses.  He knew so much and was so bright.  But having never carried a weapon in battle, he was like the president now skulking in the swamps and caves of the White House:  Ignorant, tone deaf, and deadly.  In the year Milton spent distinguishing body parts, friend, foe, or unknown, and tossing in the occasional bone to up the number, he spent every waking hour trying to stay alive.  He smoked, he drank, he did dope, and knew that the Air Force was attempting to kill him. He lost his family soon after getting home.

It took a long time before Milton understood why he wanted so badly to hit an orange and black cat with a stone.  The cat was wearing the colors of San Jacinto High…the Tigers.  But what was that damn San Jacinto cat doing in Hemet?

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A SOMETIMES MUSICAL THING Chapter 1. Milton in the world

This is a somewhat crookedy biography of a kid named Milton, from a small-town in southern California, in the 1950’s.  The town was Hemet.  Back in the golden state, before the poisoning of the well by the golden arches, Hemet was a good argument for continued human existence despite a variety of attempts, like wars, all of them perfectly justifiable, to destroy life.  And Hemet was beautiful in a plain, working way,  and not a wealth-cast coastal way.  There was nothing refined about it.  Walnuts, apricots, citrus and people, living together in relative peace.  What a place.

Also, there was no excitement to be found in Hemet, which suited the slowly growing and constantly aging white population just fine.  Churches had bake sales and potluck suppers in their basements, with up to a half-dozen different spaghetti casseroles at many prayerful events.  The boy scouts and girl scouts scouted.  Everything the farmers planted grew, and if some kids walked into a field of big, ripe watermelons, threw one to the ground, and gorged on the heart of that great, green beast, well, what the hell, boys being boys and all….  There was plenty for all, or so it seemed to those who had plenty.

So, there were no black people in the Hemet-San Jacinto Valley, and no one, but no one…not the teachers, not the preachers, not the bankers and the business folks, not the dentists and the doctors, not the drunk or the sober, not the Indians and certainly not the Chambers of Commerce…no one complained about it.  Hemet was Republican, and Republicans were, and are, famously all about property and property values.  The presence of black people?  Whoops, whites just know instinctively that the presence of black people causes property values to go down mysteriously.  Which is one way of saying that not all gates are made of  metal, if you get my drift.

On a more serious note, it was funny how Milton, even as a kid, could look at the Los Angeles Times and see pictures of black people, known for the longest time as “Negroes,” swinging grotesquely, yet peacefully, from a variety of trees and other handy hanging devices in such cities as Chattanooga and Little Rock, with absolutely NO local Hemet references.  Jim Crow?  Poor Milton didn’t know the meaning of Jim Crow for years.  Black people and black people hanging from trees were as strange as signs over drinking fountains saying, “white” and “colored.”  Black people walking down the street, same thing.  How strange.  Where did they come from?  What are they doing here?  You know, the usual shit.

Hemet did have some Hispanic families, but it was the annual arrival of braceros from Mexico, to pick the apricot harvest, that really brought out that certain sunshine-bright whiteness of Hemet to light.  I need to shade my eyes just thinking about it.

—-

Alright?  Let’s pick up Milton’s story right now.  He is out there, someplace along the line of schools.  There he is, over at the  elementary school auditorium.  He won’t be there long, so we better woof on down there….

Milton was too lazy to learn music, ignoring the chance to be, among other things, the next Rafael Mendez.  But in the sixth grade, Milton did step forward with half-baked thoughts of musical greatness.  Specific thoughts of being musically great in the Hemet, California, school system?  No, he could not be that specific.  But, on this day, the sixth grade students have the chance to buy a musical instrument to play in the coming school years.  Milton will choose to play the trumpet, and this choice will cost his parents $109.00, in 1952 dollars.

Actually, the my-son-the-musician process had already begun in 1947, when his mother attempted to awaken the genius in the boy-genius by means of violin lessons, held in the basement of the Presbyterian Church.  Although somewhat fascinated by the shape of the violin, its bow, and the neat way everything fit into the violin case, the case with the stainless steel latches, he never practiced outside of class, and soon lost interest in the instrument.

This disinterest coincided with Milton’s bored gaze at the church’s song selection on those Sundays when the folks felt compelled to hit those hard Presbyterian pews.  There were usually six or seven songs, on any Sunday, and the list might read:

Number One,  “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”  Hymn 260.

No one had to check the lyrics.  The congregation would rise, sing the song, and sit down. After a brief, thoughtful pause, Mr. Wilson would look out at his band of older white folks, and he would preach.  Milton would sit there, gazing up at the dust particles way up there near the high ceiling,  the particles floating, floating, floating in the sunshine.

Nice melody, with, great imagery.  A Mighty fortress is our God…that God up there, all stone-like and beefy-looking.  No one to fool around with.  Milton was actually beginning to get the picture.  Do this and that, and you were supposed to be OK.  But God always seemed pissed off, as he scowled and threatened.  No laughter out of God, and even a smile never crossed his lips.  He was available to serve as the responsible party for such catastrophes as floods, earthquakes, and wars, and thus he provided a handy excuse for the deaths of huge numbers of people.

Jesus was a more gentle-looking sort of guy with white skin and long, straight hair.  He seemed to be the only person Milton knew of who behaved like a Christian, which explained his name.  But, Jesus, too, could get angry, especially with other white people, like Germans, who killed Americans, and darker people from China, who were called Japs when the men gathered outside the church after the sermon.

Milton thought there were people who said he would have become a better boy if he had tried to listen to Rev. Wilson…as if any boy had the butt-power to sit for an hour and listen on and on to the drone of a monotonous sermon.  No boy ever said that he couldn’t wait to hear the next sermon about good vs evil, even with a promise of a Sugar Daddy.  Kids sat in that church because they had to be there, and not because they wanted to be there.  Kids knew a lot more about kids than adults did, and adults never asked kids what they knew.

Girls were smart.  They knew that Sunday school and church were all about babysitting and socializing, and they were generally OK with it.  Milton knew he was screwed, and that the endless sermon would never end.  It would never, ever end.  It would most especially never end as long as he was a kid.

Up on the ceiling, a spider rushed across its web, in the sunlight, and wrapped up another fly in the same way that Mr. Smith, at Hamre’s Grocery Store, wrapped up hamburger in butcher paper.

(To be continued)

GOODBYE, OLD WHITE MEN

Goodbye, old white men.  I often use the expression, “Bend Over and Kiss Your Ass Goodbye,” but, since I damn near broke my back attempting that trick, I will need to find another way to join you as you progress into the great human regression known as death, gone, moving on, left early, stayed too long. bit the big one, and that old favorite, up there with his maker.  Yes.

Where was I?  (I never thought that middle age could be so problematical!).  Oh, yeah.  Now, I remember.  Old white men are dropping like flies, especially the fat ones.  There are no fat old people.  The old ones are not fat and the fat ones are not old.  But is fat a white problem?  No.  We all own fat.  I really wanted to say, Goodbye, Fat Old White Men, but when I thought about it, I had to let it go.

What about old white women?  Good question.  Now, take it easy, and please hear me out.  You may get pissed off, anyway, but if you bear with me, and don’t ask, “Why should I know this shit?” then we may have a little fun rambling along this short path.  OK, for the sake of argument, I need to separate the men and the women.   I also beg your indulgence regarding my tendency to generalize.  Plus, this is not a research paper, and I am not interested in proving a thing.  I’m simply bullshitting my way through a series of partially true truths in the hope that if you squint hard enough you will see a little substance where there may be none.

Right.  I almost forgot.  let’s confine ourselves to the United States, which may have the most to lose in the present Era of Idiocy.  I would also like to pick on my home town, a place I know fairly well.

White men have dominated white women for what must seem like an eternity to many women.  Hang on, what about black women?  What about women in Catholic countries, and the ongoing oppression of female rights?  Two more great questions.  OK, right.  How about the Catholic women in Hispanic countries?  God knows the shit they have put up with over thousands of year of getting the hell kicked out of them if they so much as looked cross-eyed at their old man.  “Honey, I’d like to go to work.  Then we could hire a few babysitters….”  Pow.  End of issue.

Tell you what, let’s pretend that this story is a soup.  You like it as is, but see ways to improve it.  Please.  Do that.  Or burn the damn thing.  Just don’t destroy a good computer in the process.  The story has no end, so it’s destruction will merely lead to its continuity.  With these and other options in mind, let me see if I can find a way to salvage the idea of the end of the white man.  And for the sake of whatever, I will attempt to limit my examples…the cheap veracity upon which I hang my hat.

First and foremost, of course, is that old white racist bugaboo, based on the mixing of the races.  Sorry, it’s a foregone conclusion.  White is out, other colors are in.  In case there is a tendency to stress over this fact, to even eat one’s liver out, forget it.  Really.  Do you have any idea how long it takes to get a liver, white or black, these days?

I grew up in the southern California town of Hemet, back when the population was about 3000 people, give or take.  There were zero black families in the town, and just enough Hispanic families to prove the idea that it really was a white town.  And old.  Old as hell.  We attended the Presbyterian church for awhile.  The pastor was “Woody” Wilson, who, sometime in the late 1940s, sold the elders on the idea of building a skating rink to get younger families and kids into the church.  They did agree to putting down an asphalt pad, but that was their limit.  Woody was fired, the elders croaked, and I’m thinking that the followers disappeared into their piggy banks.

Old, old town.  Old white people.  Even the kids were old.  No sooner were they exposed to their old parents and grandparents than they became old.  Old, old thinking…the same old racial and ethnic bullshit they had learned from their parents, who had learned it from their parents, and as they died, they turned into bitter old fruit, that fell from dying trees.

The gods were old…all of them, and new ideas were crushed as ungodly and useless in such an ancient setting.  To stay young and vital, many of Hemet’s people left for greener pastures, sometimes literally greener.  They studied and learned and grew.

I could sometimes see friends, friends I thought would remain forever young, grow into old white people before my eyes.  They wanted to be old white people, and go to the grave as old white people…laid out stiff and hard long before they were dead.  I could see it, but it only pissed off my friends if I dared to suggest that, for example, their gods actually suffered the poor and the weak, with suggestions that they do the same.  But it never worked.  I had left Hemet, so what the hell did I know?

Some who stayed in this land of old white people did not become old white children, but matured into thoughtful adults, and attempted to learn and teach learning.  I’m a pessimist.  But there they are, in Hemet and along the rims of the town….working to keep the town both viable and brown.

They don’t curse the reality of the dope and other problems they helped, in some way, to create, but attempt to fight for the health of their goddamn home.

Meanwhile, the women of Hemet are rearing kids or they are working and making all manner of choice.  Once in a while, one reads of a wife who has put a bullet into the brain-pan of some old guy, a wife-beater, a rapist, a child-abuser…the very people now in the interminable process of taking over our political, business, education, and military organizations.

The murder happened in the driveway of the house, in Hemet, in southern California, that I grew up in.  Shot the son of a bitch dead.  A womanizer, the paper said.  And it happened smack in the middle of the Valley of the Old White Men that was, in fact, the capital city of Old White Men, a group not entirely Republican but enough Republican to be mistaken for an entire population, caught in the throes of death.

So, get your shit together, men, and, whether you grow up or grow down…it will not make a hell of a lot of difference to the new ownership.

wpmini-blue

HELLO, AMERICA? (Setting: shy boy of limited means (me) approaches an often haughty neighbor who is sometimes rich and sometimes impoverished; sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly; sometimes generous…make that grudgingly generous. Full of death and full of life, full of abundance, full of starvation, laughs and screams across the land. Wrong place, wrong time? Deadly. Often…. Hell, you get the picture). A telephone rings on the other end of the line…

Hello, America, is that really you?  No shit?  Damn, I have been trying to talk to you forever.  What’s it take to get through to you, anyway, you crotchety old bitch?  Jesus, you’ve stood me up more than What’s-Her-Face…whose name I dare not mention.  I hardly knew you when I was a kid, busy trying to figure out what those nuns over there in San Jacinto were trying to explain about my guardian angel, whom I now understand to have been a phony in a nylon slip.  Looked like Kim Novak.  Should have been warning enough.

Anyway, at least I knew how violent you could be when the floods poured down the canyon, wiping out a lot of the farmlands those funny-looking old white people with the beards, the Hemet Gothic, took from the Native Americans they forced onto the higher ground with the poorer soil.  Oh, yeah.  Those people.  Soboba.  The Rez.  Remember?  The Indians.  The very people who now hold the high ground AND the high cards?  Now the white cry is WE want a rez so WE can gamble, too!  It’s just not fair.

No, really.  Don’t hang up on me, and I won’t mention the Indians again, and the more than 500 treaties that my white brothers made with the native peoples who lived with you, America, under many different pretexts.  I know you, you tricky old devil.  You will fail to remind me that we broke every one of those treaties, thus stealing virtually all of you, buying and selling most of you for whatever the market allowed!  And don’t go playing dumb with me, you old shill.

(Strictly between us, could you cut me in?  Like any American, I can use a little more of the old dough-re-me.  What say?)

Can I tell you right now that you still remind me of a girl in high school named Nanci, who just knocked me out.  Like you, she was an older girl.  She had these languid brown eyes, a soft, southern accent, and sometimes I had bad thoughts (i.e. wonderful fantasies) about her.  One day she had to ask me to stop looking at her breasts that just pushed her beautiful violet-colored cashmere sweater out into these strong, but soft shapes.  Her buttons were under just this much stress, never like Raquel Welsh and the sense that they would explode into an onlookers eye and cause damage.  The buttons, that is.  Know what I mean?

How are you?  What do I look like these days?    Me?  I’m OK, looking good if not fine, fine, superfine. No great expectations, but still inspired by Ringo’s drumming to at least dream a little dream or two….  Oh, I’m still about six three, and….  What?  Am I a virgin?  Well, hell, no.  What kind of question is that?  You know that I know a couple of your reservoirs…a couple of your river banks.  You know I am not a virgin.  Hey, that’s right.  I lost my virginity climbing that locust tree in my folks’ yard when I was, you know, whenever it is that a guy’s whachacallits drop and he needs something or someone to climb.  But don’t you worry.  You go with me and I can show you a good time, and I think you need a good time.  Fact is, you need a hot shower and a good scrubbing.  You are about as rasty and bad-ass as anybody I have known, and in powerful need of thinking about something besides the presence of the devil throughout your great land.  What a waste of time.  You should know better.

And, yes, I do think it is true that you can be too easy.  Any creep offering you a cheesecake and a wad of ones can have his way with you.  Check out Vladimir.  He’s been screwing you for years, along with his dopey buddies.  Go ahead and say it again:  “Take all the coal you want.  It’s on me.  Wipe out the fisheries.  Hell with Flint.  Give me my cut, and help yourselves.  Am I low-fare for child-care?  Don’t bother me with that shit.  And you, Betsy, no more of that education crap.  It bores me to death.  Don’t forget to leave the money on the table, and turn out the light when you leave.”

And tell me.  Do you really need to keep thinking about that incredible array of weapons and how to use them?  What? a rifle turns you on?  Well, OK.  To some degree, OK.  But I should have thought that, being the great, caring lady that you are reputed to be, and not that biblically-proportioned whore that our president and many of his dopey followers are attempting to turn you into, you would have shaken off your more cowardly, fearful side.

The devil is here alright, ordering weak, ugly you to do things like separating families on the southern border, raising the specter of shithole countries, and leading our nutless bolts into the jungles of ignorant white nationalism.

Jesus, girl, would you please get your shit together?

Sorry, Miss Liberty.  I seem to have misplaced my peanut butter.  Do you mind if we simply talked about my love for you, Miss Fickle Heart of 1900?  Just a couple of more things.  I have a bunch of friends who do not give a shit about facts and just hate it if anyone brings them up.  You know that weirdo we just elected president?  Yeah, that one.  Didn’t he grab you by the pussy a few times, and go around man-fucking Vladimir, the KGB agent who is attempting to gain control of our voting?  The Russians call Vlad, “Needledick the Bug-Fucker.”  Funny, huh, how a famous, wonderful, free and independent woman, such as yourself, could elect a prick like this president?

OK, say it’s not your fault.  Blame it on the people and an ignorance about things not related to bullshit.  I can see that.  You’re right.  You are just a framework…the skin and bones, so I don’t mind your telling me to go fuck myself.  You remember when I was sharp as a tack, and you joked that I was sharp as a marble?  Whoa, fun times.  But seriously, lady….

Anyway, here’s the thing.  Who the hell are you?  All my life I have been getting a huge mess of stories about you, and I am having a hell of a time trying to figure you out.  I want you to show me something.  Tell me about yourself, and don’t bullshit me, OK?  No more fucking around like Amos, Andy, the Lone Ranger and all your traditional racist and sexist shit.  Get over it, lady.  Them days are very gone.

By the way, you need to deal with ole Needledick, and don’t take your eyes off of his noisy troupe of clowns and idiots.  You already know that you are sometimes naive, and make big mistakes, but don’t play games with this character.  He is the real McCoy of nightmare scenarios.  America, I still have a crush on you.  You were never as warm as I’ll bet Nanci was (be still my beating heart), but you are a wonderful old thing and we’d like you to hang around awhile.  OK.  You’re right.  We need you.

Now, do you mind if we stop with the stories so I can tell you of my love for you, my fickle-hearted friend?  And yes.  I am registered to vote, so you better watch your lame old ass.  American women and kids are arriving a lot sooner than any fool out there ever expected.

A LONG WAY TO SWIM. Chapter 3 Goodbye Sea, Hello Land

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(click “scan” above for photograph of Coast Guard Cutter Mojave)

Mafalda was suddenly quiet at the commercial pier it had been moved to for offloading its cargo of saltpeter.  The excitement had ended with the voyage.  There was no noise, save for the creaking and moaning in the painful joints of worn-out ship’s parts.  She was a very old lady, beyond the help of an expensive emergency room.  This workhorse was never designed or built to resemble the long, narrow racing lines of a blue-blood clipper-ship.  And now Mafalda, in her rocking chair, simply moved imperceptibly up and down, up and down at the dock.

Johannes, becoming more a “John,” and less a “Johannes,” and some of the crew sensed that they were becoming caught in a web of nearly forgotten harbor rhythms as they left behind the missing rhythms of the sea.  They wanted to get going, but they were all lost, a polyglot ship’s population of the young and the dumb.   All smart and no wise.  All the killers were innocent.  Some of the crew were farmers, who missed the smell of cow shit under their fingernails.  Others were permanently wounded and psychologically damaged war survivors.  PTSD was part of nobody’s language.  To claim such a thing invited accusations of cowardice, as it still does among the ignorant. There was even a war-free pharmacist’s son, looking for adventure on the open seas, in addition to clean, wonderfully-smelling, maddeningly beautiful girls in every port.  He was, of course, from Norway, which is a land of such people.

Some of the boys were all these things, and much more.  All were trapped in a pre-post-modern painting, with touches of the ancient and the abstract created by a few street lights, often filtered through visions of alcohol.

None of these children knew any of this, of course.  For John, definition was determined largely from postcard to postcard, and how he thought others might perceive him via that medium.  “Dear family. I am here.  There are no apes in the palm trees.  Mafalda may not return to Norway.  I do not know where she sails to.  Is grandfather still alive?”

Lacking philosophers, they had to depend on dreams, nightmares, and gossip, with an occasional insight that went beyond the place where they stood at any one time.  The future was dependent on the next impulse.  Johannes grew thoughtful after he dreamed about being trapped in a sinking sailing ship, though he knew enough to not think of the dream as a nightmare.  Nightmares were trouble, and he was not looking for trouble.  He had had plenty of fear…enough of anxiety,  and was unaware of the kind of thinking necessary for insights.  But, in fact, he was growing up, gaining definition, earning recognition, and making new mistakes.  He was developing a shadow of his own.

Shipboard, nothing rolled on the deck, and the rigging got slack as it slowly began to deteriorate in the sun and salt air.  The crew stopped yelling, and began to speak in low tones.  No one knew quite what to do and where to go.  At first, the men laughed as they went ashore and attempted to walk a straight line after months at sea.  The captain tried ordering some make-work, but the crew knew they were no longer at sea, and that real seamanship was no longer called for.  Jobs like scraping paint only caused grumbling, and soon, the crew, by ones and twos, collected its pay and drifted away.  Harbor authorities came and went, but they paid little attention to things like passports and papers.  All over the goddamn insane world, millions of people walked the earth with their passports in their feet.  In Hawaii, in this day of prohibition, the government search was for illicit rum, gin, opium, and other drugs, which spilled over the lush landscape.

The calms and the storms had became soft breezes, filled with the magical scents that none could have imagined in any of the places they had come from.  Most of the crew did the one thing that all were infected with:  the need to wander.  Johannes and his pal, Smith, began exploring Honolulu as they waited for all their pay, and to find out whether or not Mafalda would return to Norway.  It would not.

The United States Coast Guard.

One night, John and Smith wandered into town.  They found a favorite bar, began smoking and drinking okolehao, and soon got into a strange, very funny contest.  They decided to show off how cows, often resting in the forest at night, were called to the milk barns of Finland and Norway at milking time.  These sounds, with the volume exaggerated, soon attracted other sailors, who felt compelled to join in.  The contest didn’t end until two American navy shorepatrolmen, batons in hand, ordered a stop to it.  A pair of local beauties then walked into the place, wondering what those strange noises were all about.  No one could believe how well their cattle calls had worked, which created yelling, laughter, and a near-riot.

The next day, our two sailors, quiet now, were walking around Honolulu when they passed a military recruitment office.  Without thinking, they went in to get out of a rain shower.  They had never heard of the Coast Guard, but were instinctively drawn to a poster showing a large motor vessel on the open sea.  They thought it was all about the U.S. Navy, but did not care, since neither sailor intended to be in the military service of another country.

As they sat in the Coast Guard office, a clean-cut young coast guardsman, assisted by a Filipino serviceman with a stack of forms, plied them with coffee and rolls.  This was wonderful.  They were no longer drunk, and someone was giving them coffee and food.  In what seemed like a moment, each of the young sailors had filled out various forms, had their pictures taken, and could not believe their luck.  All they had to do was serve a few months in the U.S. Coast Guard, and they would automatically become American citizens, with  passports and all.  This is what the officer promised, and their limited knowledge of English simply confirmed what they did not really know.  They knew nothing of this version of being shanghaied.  No billy clubs or spiked drinks, and no one was beaten or kidnapped, like they did, according to rumor, on those British vessels!  And best of all, pay was in dollars, U.S., which meant little because the promise had little meaning for the boys.

That night, John went to a tattoo parlor.  He looked at the designs, and chose something that did have meaning:  He put a blue anchor, with attached line curved around it, onto his left forearm, where it remained for the rest of his life.

 

 

Some days later, having drawn uniforms and shoes from a quartermaster, John and Smith boarded a 240 foot cutter, and threw their duffels under their bunks.  The ship was the  Mojave, with something new and unique called “turbo-electric transmission.”  She was one of four new, identical cutters built in Oakland, California, in 1921.  John found himself as a gunner’s mate, manning a deck gun called a six-pounder, located just under the bridge.  In the following few days, the sailors practiced reading manuals, learning terminology, and how to fit the scene.  The skipper ran a tight ship, and nothing was ever clean enough.  The vessel had stricter rules and regulations than Mafalda, and both men missed their big sailing ship, from where they retrieved their things while saying goodbye to friends.

They were fairly sure that, the sea being the sea, their new ship and new flag would be just the solution they needed to repair the unease they had begun to feel out there in the world.  They had a home, new friends, and a job.  The food was good, and it did not take long to make personal adjustments.  Yes, they thought they were treated as children, but their new ship was a constant source of interest, and there was much to learn on the short training cruises.

In the months to come, Smith would stay in the Coast Guard.  Among other missions, the Mojave went north into the Bering Sea to prevent illegal seal hunting, while making various attempts at slowing smuggling operations.  After a year or two, he turned down a promotion and returned to Porsgrunn.  The Mojave was transferred to the east coast, never to return to the Pacific (See the photo above, showing the Mojave entering Boston Harbor).  After World War II service as a weather and rescue vessel, the cutter was decommissioned in 1947, sold to private parties, and finally scrapped in 1964.

When John learned that the Coast Guard lied about the promised citizenship, his genuine Finn-lock mind mechanism told him that he and the Coast Guard would soon part ways.  All bets were off.  When the Mojave sailed to the Bering Sea in 1922, John was not on board.  It happened that while the cutter was in Oakland to prepare for the voyage north, John went down the gangplank, and started walking.  He had no checkbook and, of course, no credit cards.  With little money and no plans, he assumed that, sooner or later, he would be discovered and arrested.

Scan_20180630

John with coast guard buddy, Smith, Porsgrunn, Norway, 1965.

On a return to Finland in l965, John stopped in Porsgrunn, and stayed with Smith for a few days.  They spent the better part of one day walking the dock where they had worked to rig Mafalda for her long voyage.  They actually saw themselves on the old ghost ship as they talked, and as forgotten memories re-emerged.

It was heard that John spent some time in Idaho, working as a shepherd on a ranch in the panhandle.  In any case, he eventually returned to Oakland, where he went into men’s clothing, and learned how to pose as Rudolf Valentino on the front fender of a car parked at a Russian River resort.  But that is another story.

Right.  The citizenship.  In 1966, I was on my first Air Force assignment at the Aeronautical Chart and Information Center, St. Louis, waiting to get security clearance to work behind the storied (exaggerated!) Jefferson Barracks “green door,” where madame l’armee de l’air americaine kept her innermost secrets in an old fruit jar.  One day, I was in Colonel Custer’s office, and he told me that I was refused clearance by the FBI because my father was not a citizen.  Apparently, John had never bothered with the formality of it all.  If the Colonel had a feather, he could have knocked me over with it.

So, I called my illegal immigrant father, who called an old family friend in Los Angeles, and in a few days, dad had his citizenship (he already had a passport, renewed several times), and I had my clearance.  It seems that if you paid your taxes, owned a home and a business, and carried a passport, becoming a citizen was a piece of cake.

THINKING IN BED

Thinking in bed took all my time all morning long.

What was that song?

His wife, I remembered, was Theresa, I thought.  But was it?  I remembered that she had some kind of nervous disorder, but then, thinking in bed, I remembered that it was depression.

They were a great couple.  A Saudi and an English, as some Saudis might put it.  Ras Tanura.  Back when.  He had been in one of my training classes.  What was his name?  I could always see his face, see the way he stooped a little when he walked, and always did remember his voice.

But what was his name?  And what was the name of that song?

He taught me how to make wine.  A Saudi of one of the Kingdom’s big tribes.  North of Medina, and centered on Jebal….  Jesus, if I remember the Jebal I have his name.  I need to look it up.

Hell of a guy, I was thinking in bed.  Friendly, smart foreman who walked with a slight shuffle.  Or stoop.  I went to some of his power systems kabsas.  One time I took Johnny to a kabsa in Dhahran.  He was very young.  They had killed a baby camel, and it was tender and delicious, back when I was eating meat, before meat got stuck in my teeth and became such a pain in the ass.

Johnny and I washed our hands, sat down, and put our right hands into the hot rice, which burned like hell.  I taught John how to keep rolling the rice into a small ball before attempting to more or less toss it into his mouth, Bedouin-style, something I rarely got right.  Everyone would agree that the fatty rice burned, but, being mostly Bedouin, the guys said nothing, and would look and laugh at the ajnabi trainer and his son work those crumbling balls of rice.

I was thinking in bed this morning.  Thinking of those times.  I told John last week that he had the honor of eating the baby camel’s eyeball, but he did not remember and did not believe me.  And the reason he did not believe me was that I was lying like a fish.  A fish.  A lying fish.

When I told him that he swallowed the eyeball instead of chewing it, he continued to disbelieve his own father.

No.  One of the power division guys got an eyeball.  But the meat was tender and delicious, and it, too, burned our hands.  Some of the guys would tear off a piece of meat and toss onto the platter in front of us.  Or they would stuff their own piece into the rice and then use their greasy right hands to join meat with rice…maybe a touch of hot fil-fil or Tabasco…eating and talking and laughing.  Kabsas were a Wednesday afternoon thing…with the weekend beginning the next day.

But what was the name of Theresa’s husband?  The guy with the jungle inside his house, who taught me to turn Rauch grape juice into the hands-down best red and white wines in the Kingdom.  Who made everybody feel good.  Who made little John laugh, and happy to be among that dwindling group of people calling themselves Arabs.  The once great race, before the forced lines of nation state-ism castrated the lot.  Who could claim a unique culture and were a constant challenge to understand among those who really gave a damn.  Before the intelligent fools representing the funny-house glories of our weird civilization got them by the short hairs and took them willingly away into the Valley of Wonder…fat, fearful and lusting for more and more wealth.

I wonder how all the passing faces are, as I Lay in bed, thinking on a Friday morning.

And what was the name of that song?