Trump is Right that We Should Stop Endless Wars

November 22nd, 2020

This letter from me was printed in the Capitol Times (Madison, WI) on November 19th.

I almost never agree with Donald Trump. The only thing he has ever proposed that appealed to me was his intention to bring our troops home and shut down our endless wars. Apparently, with his appointment of Christopher Miller as the acting Secretary of Defense, Trump may actually follow through with this objective. Miller told the employees of the Department of Defense that “We are not a people of perpetual war — it is the antithesis of everything for which we stand and for which our ancestors fought. All wars must end.”

Miller’s words would be more impressive of they were all true. The fact is that we Americans are a people of perpetual war. Even a cursory look at our nation’s history shows that we have been fighting wars, declared or otherwise, almost constantly. The United States has seldom been at peace.

Miller is correct that all wars must end. Our currently wars should end now. Actually, they should have ended years ago, before my son fought in Iraq. I guess it’s better late than never.

Soap Bubbles

November 20th, 2020

A little blue machine cranks out soap bubbles as Weston watches. One after another, fragile spheres float upward. Their surfaces are iridescent in the sunshine. The two year old boy squats down and gazes intently at a bubble. He is fascinated by its shape and changing colors. Then it silently pops, and Weston looks carefully at the next ball of nothingness.

As an adult, I smile at Weston’s interest in soap bubbles. He is so enthralled with things that are both beautiful and ephemeral. He stares at one of the bubbles, but he is not obsessed with it. When it pops, it’s gone, and so is his attention span. He knows how to focus. He also knows how to let go.

I envy Weston. He’s in the moment. He doesn’t have much of a past, and his future is a mystery to him. Every day is a new adventure. Weston can’t say much, so he doesn’t get wrapped up in words. He understands some of what people tell him, but he does not know what a lie is. Not yet.

I went for a long walk a little before dawn. As I wandered past an empty field, I heard some twigs cracking in the brush. A doe leaped up. It saw me as it came back to earth. The deer’s ears twitched as she stared at me. I looked at her and waved. She stared a bit longer, and then she bolted into the oak trees.

As I walked back home, I saw the sun rise. A semi-circle of orange flame licked the bare branches on the tree line. It was gorgeous, and then it was gone. That image lasted only for an instant, and now it is barely a memory. The deer is only a memory. She is gone too.

I grieve for these things that are no more. Weston wouldn’t. He would just go on to the next marvelous thing to comes his way. He wouldn’t think about what has come and gone. He’d throw himself completely into whatever he is experiencing right now.

Below is a picture of Weston, my grandson and dharma teacher. The scene is from the past. It no longer exists. Weston is busy doing other things.

Open Ended

November 15th, 2020

“Commitment is an act, not a word.” – Jean-Paul Sartre

When I was on my way home from Texas three weeks ago, I got a phone call from a girl that I love. She was upset. Her fiancé just had a drug relapse, and was in the hospital for detox. The young woman said to me,

“He is getting kicked out of his mom’s house. Can he stay with us?”

Without giving it a second thought, I replied, “Yes.”

The young man is now living with us. As a matter of fact, he is presently taking a well-deserved nap in the girl’s bedroom. He was up most of the night with two of his children (from a previous relationship), and he’s a bit worn out. His kids came here for a sleepover, which means this guy didn’t get to sleep last night. The girl’s fiancé already has three small children, and when the young woman gives birth to Asher at the beginning of February, he will have four.

The young man is a decent enough guy. He’s been through some very rough times, and he trying to get his life back together. He truly loves the young woman, and she loves him. They have similar histories (tumultuous), and they are able to support each other emotionally and spiritually. Financially, it’s a different story, but they are working on that part of the their relationship.

Staying sober and healthy is a struggle for both of them. Well, that is a challenge for me too. Experiencing the physical world without any buffers is a bitch. These two young people are doing their best to live their lives in the world that exists around them, I admire them for their efforts.

However, they can’t do it on their own.

Honestly, nobody can do it on their own. Anybody who says that they can navigate the struggles of life without help is a liar. Rugged individualism isn’t enough. Reliance on a God who may or may not exist in the material world isn’t enough. A person can only survive and thrive with the assistance of other people.

Why did we welcome this young man into our home? I’m not sure about that. Twenty years ago, Karin and I had the opportunity (or responsibility) to allow my younger brother, Chuck, into our house. He was in a similar situation. He was addicted and homeless at the time. I chose to keep him out. I was scared and I didn’t know what my brother would do. I kept Chuck at arm’s length.

Chuck is dead.

Did I kill him? Probably not. But I could have helped him, and I didn’t.

What is different now? I am different, for sure. After a decade of dealing with the young woman’s drug problems, I have changed my ideas and beliefs. I don’t judge nearly as much as I used to. I’m still scared, but I don’t care about the consequences of helping any more.

This young man is family. He is the father of the young woman’s child. I have a responsibility for him, one that goes beyond blood relation.

I am committed. That commitment is open ended.

Something Big

November 12th, 2020

“Look out kid
They keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle
Don’t wear sandals
Try to avoid the scandals
Don’t wanna be a bum
You better chew gum
The pump don’t work
‘Cause the vandals took the handles”

Subterranean Homesick Blues – Bob Dylan

“And it wasn’t no way to carry on
It wasn’t no way to live
But he could up with it for a little while
He was working on something big”

Something Big – Tom Petty

Monday morning was unseasonably warm. I parked the Focus at the McKinley Marina. Lake Michigan sparkled blue in the sunshine. I walked across Lincoln Memorial Drive to the coffee shop.

The café is called “Colectivo”. It tries to be trendy. Currently, it is very strict on social distancing. There is no indoor seating, and the employees want the customers to order their lattes and get the hell out of the building. I bought a small black coffee, and found a seat at a table near the street. I was waiting for Kevin to show up. He is a friend of mine from the Zen Center. We hadn’t seen each other (in person) for quite a while.

As I sat there, I saw a young man walking along the street, coming my direction. He was thin and bearded. He wore a knit cap and a t-shirt. He seemed to be deep in conversation with someone I couldn’t see. In this day and age, it is not unusual to see somebody who appears to be talking to himself. I looked to see if the young man had a cell phone or earbuds. Nope. He really was having an internal conversation out loud.

The young guy came over to my table. I seem to attractive people like that. He had dark curly hair that was uncombed and unwashed. His eyes were feverish, and they darted in all directions, even when he was talking to me. He asked me for money, which was no surprise.

I told him that my name was Frank, and I asked him for his name.

He replied, “John. It’s John.” He looked around, and continued, “We’re by the street, so I could be ‘John of the Street’, or maybe ‘John of the Lake’. Yeah, that would be good.”

I pulled out my wallet and handed him a ten. He took the bill without looking at it, and slid it into a greasy pants pocket.

I asked him, “So, what are you going to do today?”

He gave me a sly smile, and said in a low, conspiratorial voice, “I can’t really talk about that.”

That made me remember my brother, Chuck. For a while, Chuck lived at the Milwaukee Rescue Mission. He got thrown out of his hotel room, and he had nowhere else to go. I used to visit with him there on Monday evenings, before I went to meditation practice at the Zen Center. Sometimes, I took Chuck out for a meal. Sometimes we just talked. I remember that the weather was warm while he was staying at the mission, so we usually talked outside where Chuck could smoke.

The other residents of the mission were outside too. They were all hustling. They were all talking shit about some deal they were working. All of them were convinced that they could beat the system, when it was obvious that the system had already beaten them.

Some guy was trying sell single cigarettes to his compadres. Other guys were drinking sodas. Chuck smiled as he told me about some scam he had going.

“Yeah, this guy came here and he wants some of us to clean out this bar he’s remodeling. It’s a good gig. Just cash. I won’t need to worry about paying any taxes.”

Chuck talked like he was making the deal of the century. All these guys were talking like that. Their lives were in tatters, but they were all working on something big.

Chuck is long dead. He drank himself to death. I think the official cause of death was a heart attack, but the booze killed him. He died alone in some shitty, low income apartment. The building reeked of stale cigarette smoke. The apartment was on a floor where the walls were all painted a dingy, bureaucratic green, and signs were posted saying, “Don’t take other people’s ‘meals on wheels’.” One room had a note on the door which read, “Want cigarettes? There’s a Walgreens down the block. Go there.”

I looked again at the young man standing next to me. He was muttering to himself. He looked at me, but he didn’t see me. His mind was far away. He was having this lively conversation with voices I couldn’t hear. The words made total sense to him, but they were gibberish to me. It was like listening to the lyrics from Subterranean Homesick Blues without any of the music.

Eventually, having forgotten me, the young man simply wandered off.

Kevin came over to me. He had just walked out of Colectivo. He said,

“Hey man, can you buy me a coffee? My card doesn’t work, and these guys won’t take cash.”

I told him, “Sure. Why not? You’re not the first guy to hit me up for money today.”

Weimar

November 11th, 2020

“Undermine their pompous authority, reject their moral standards, make anarchy and disorder your trademarks. Cause as much chaos and disruption as possible but don’t let them take you ALIVE.” – Sid Vicious, punk rocker

Each morning I read the news and I despair.

I live in what many people consider to be the greatest democracy on earth, and all I read lately is how Donald Trump and his acolytes are doing their damnedest to trash our political system. I wonder if any of them have ever listened to the Sex Pistols. Probably not. These folks are still definitely the spiritual heirs of Sid Vicious.

I like to read history. I don’t know why. It is kind of a perverse pleasure. Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I think he was being optimistic. I am sure that even when we remember the past, we still tend to repeat it. We are kind of stupid that way.

The current situation makes me think of the Weimar Republic in Germany. The republic existed from 1918 to 1933. That was a crazy, chaotic time period which convulsed Germany from the end of the First World War until the rise of Hitler. It was a short, but important, part of German history. It was a bubbling cauldron filled with hyperinflation, radical politics, massive unemployment, dazzling achievements in the arts, and amazing discoveries in physics.

There is a Netflix series in German (with English subtitles, if so desired) called Babylon Berlin. The series is about living conditions in Germany in the Weimar Republic. I suspect that the series plays fast and loose with the historical details, but I think the show is spot on with regards to the Zeitgeist. That was a time of decadence and moral confusion.

I compare our present situation with the Weimar Republic, and I feel uneasy. There are many differences between the U.S. in 2020 and Germany in 1920. Germany at that time had no democratic tradition. We have one that goes back over 230 years. Unlike Germany, we are not a defeated nation in debt to the victors of a catastrophic war. We are wealthy and powerful. Germany, at that time, was not.

However, we are morally adrift. There is no national consensus. There is no commitment to the common good. There is little or no trust in our institutions. We are hyper-partisan, and unable to compromise, or even converse, with our political opponents.

Those things make me think of Weimar. Those are some the things that destroyed the fledgling German republic. Those are the things that eventually led to the Nazi dictatorship.

I am not saying that Trump is a Nazi. He’s not. He would need to care about something other than himself in order to be another Hitler. However, he does not have any respect for the U.S. Constitution or any of our country’s political norms or traditions. If he can’t win, he’s willing to burn it all down.

Hitler did not bring down the Weimar Republic. Greedy, power-hungry politicians did. Zealots blinded by their fanaticism did. People unable to respect their fellow citizens did. A nation without any common value system did.

It can happen again. It can happen here.

Clowns and Jokers

November 7th, 2020

“Trying to make some sense of it all
But I can see it makes no sense at all
Is it cool to go to sleep on the floor?
‘Cause I don’t think that I can take anymore

Clowns to the left of me! Jokers to the right!

Here I am. Stuck in the middle with you.”

Stuck in the Middle with You- Stealers Wheel

I have an election hangover. It’s not quite like the morning after a serious drunk, but there are similarities. I am not worried about where I parked my car, or if my wife is mad at me. I just keep wondering if we actually have a new President.

I wake up feeling befuddled and confused. I look at the news on the Internet and I groan. Tylenol won’t help with this.

I knew this shit would happen. All I wanted was a clear win. It didn’t need to be the Democrats. I would have been okay if the Republicans had kicked some ass. But we got the worst of all possible worlds. We still have a government and an electorate that is split almost exactly into two equal halves. Nothing has been resolved.

Both Biden and Trump are damaged goods. Neither of them will accomplish anything during the next four years. Neither of them has a mandate.

I voted reluctantly for Biden. It would be more accurate to say that I voted against Trump. Biden was the very last person among the Democratic candidates that I wanted on the ballot. I was stuck with Uncle Joe. I actually put up a yard sign for Biden. I hadn’t put a political sign in my front yard since Ralph Nader ran for president. Come to think of it, I hadn’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1992. I voted for a Democrat this time, not because I liked Biden, but because I despise Trump. Sad, but true.

I woke up this morning at 4:00 AM. Like I fool, I first looked at the news. Then I put on a reflective vest, and went for a very long walk in the countryside. I walked in silence and gazed up at the stars and the moon. As I walked back toward my house, I could see the eastern sky just beginning to get an orange glow. I felt good by the time I reached my front door.

I think I need to go for another walk.

Soon.

Cemetery

November 6th, 2020

Shawn and I went to Mount Calvary Catholic Cemetery while I was in Texas a couple weeks ago. Shawn’s husbands are buried there, both of them.

Shawn is my sister-in-law, and she is twice a widow. That would seem to be an uncommon situation, and an unpleasant one. It is hard enough for a person to lose one spouse to death, but to lose two?

Mount Calvary is hidden away in a low income area of Bryan, Texas. It is a bit hard to find, at least it is for a Yankee like me. Shawn had to give me directions to the graveyard, because I couldn’t remember where it was. We arrived there in my old Ford Focus on a sunny Wednesday morning. The grounds were well kept, and there were a few trees to provide shade. It was quiet there.

I am not a big fan of cemeteries. However, my brother, Marc, was. Marc was Shawn’s first husband. Marc was also an amateur photographer. He loved to take pictures in cemeteries. He had a strange connection with these places, especially with Mount Calvary. I have a black and white picture of Marc, sitting in this cemetery, apparently pondering his mortality.

Marc died in February of 1998. He blew his mind out in a car. Marc was going to a park to play frisbee golf with a close friend. Marc’s Mazda spun out on some gravel and he hit a bridge abutment. Marc was killed instantly. His passenger survived with just a few scratches.

That was my first real encounter with death. Up until that time, I was only vaguely familiar with the end game. I had had grandparents die, but they were old, and it only seemed natural that they should move on. When Marc died, eleven years younger than myself, death became very, very real. I wasn’t afraid to die, but I was suddenly aware that I was in the batting order.

Shawn and I stood next to Marc’s headstone. It’s a black rock, deeply carved with his essential information, and also etched with an insipid phrase that is intended to inspire (or at least not piss off) anybody who bothers to visit the grave. It says something maudlin like “always in our hearts” or words like that. I forget exactly what.

Shawn remembered how brutally competitive Marc was about nearly everything, especially video games. I remembered that too. Back in the early 1980’s, I played “Missile Command” with Marc. He beat me by about 10,000 points. I finally threw down my controller and walked away. Marc yelled after me, “Can’t take it? Too much for you?” Fuck you, Marc.

Shawn and I thought that perhaps we should change the writing on his gravestone. We could erase the Hallmark phrase and write down, “I win!” or “I am superior!”. These are all things that Marc actually said during his life. Why not?

I don’t want to be derogatory toward Marc. Of all my brothers, I was closest to Marc. I’m not sure why that was. We had similar life paths, and we thoroughly understood each other. It truly hurt me when he died. Something inside me died along with him. Marc was an intensely spiritual man, and he was a devoted husband and father. In the short time given to him, Marc did things right.

Shawn’s second husband, Bob, is buried next to Marc. I did not know Bob well. He was a rough and tumble kind of guy. He had a gift for music and art. He and Shawn came to love each other, and I liked the man. I wrote to him once that there were no hard feelings between my family and him. I wanted Bob to know that my family, i.e. Marc’s family, was okay with his marriage to Shawn.

Bob died of brain cancer. He and Shawn knew that he had the cancer when they married. Bob died in Shawn’s arms. Shawn begged God to be merciful. She didn’t want to lose two men that she loved dearly. God said “no”. Shawn still believes in God.

As I stood in front of the two tombstones, of Marc and Bob, I felt uneasy. There was too much suffering. There were too many things left unspoken. There was too much left unresolved.

Shawn wanted to say the “Hail Mary” while we were there. We did. I think we did the Buddhist prayer too: “Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo”. Maybe we didn’t do that together. Maybe I only did.

There are no answers. There are only questions.

Mother Rucker

November 2nd, 2020

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” – William Faulkner

Almost forty years ago, I went to the U.S. Army Flight School at Fort Rucker, Alabama. Good old Mother Rucker. I think about it now because a neighbor of mine is going through Marine basic training, and he has been writing to me. Dylan’s reports remind me of things long past, but these are things that somehow don’t seem to be part of the past at all.

I was almost twenty-three years old when I started flight school. I was a second lieutenant and I knew next to nothing about the world. I still don’t know much, but at that time I was profoundly ignorant. Perhaps it was better that way. If I had known then how crazy and dangerous my path was going to be, I never would have followed it.

The first type of helicopter I ever flew was a Hughes TH-55 Osage. It was basically a tricycle for new aviators. The aircraft was a bare-bones type of machine. It looked like an orange with a pencil stuck into the back of it. The cockpit was little more than plexiglass bubble. We generally flew without any doors. The helicopter was powered by a reciprocating engine with a throttle, like on a motorcycle. The instruments in the cockpit consisted of an altimeter, an air speed indicator, a compass, and a fuel gauge. There was also a communication radio.

My first flight instructor was Mr. Fred Vernon. Was a retired Marine. Mr. Vernon had flown missions as a fighter pilot in the Pacific during World War II. He must have been in his sixties when I met him in 1981. He wore his white hair in a crewcut, and he had an ugly scar on the bridge of his nose where a surgeon had removed some skin cancer. Mr. Vernon worked for some government contractor that provided aviation instructors for the Army. As far as I could tell, Mr. Vernon lived on coffee, cigarettes, and bourbon. Being as he was former military, that made complete sense to me. That kind of unhealthy lifestyle was standard back then, and it really hasn’t changed much since.

There were three students assigned to Mr. Vernon: Padraic O’Brien, Joe Miller, and myself. We were all fresh-faced lieutenants, eager to learn, but not quite quick enough for our instructor. Mr. Vernon was in a hurry to get us all flying solo, and he could sign us off after a minimum of ten hours in the air. The instructor pilot had the responsibility of deciding when to send each of his students up alone. The I.P. had to determine when the new guy was capable of flying solo for two hours, without killing himself or rolling the helicopter up into a ball. Mr. Vernon was not the kind of man to hold somebody’s hand. We were pushed.

Hard.

I remember when I flew with him to a training field to practice hovering. Mr. Vernon took the controls and brought the helicopter to a perfect three-foot hover above the tarmac. The aircraft didn’t move at all. It was as steady as it would have been sitting on the ground. He handed the controls over to me and said in his raspy, smoke-hardened voice,

“Here. You have the controls. Try to keep it in Alabama.”

I took that as a challenge. The hardest part of hovering in a helicopter is over-controlling. Hovering requires a delicate touch, with only the slightest of movements on the cyclic control stick. I found out what happened if you get too involved in the process.

Initially, I held the helicopter steady. Then it drifted a bit to the right. I adjusted the cyclic to move it to the left. I adjusted too much. The helicopter slid left and turned a bit. I tried to turn it back. Once again, I made a movement that was excessive. Then we went up too far. I tried to come down. We turned again. We shifted right again. We went up and down and left and right and back and forth. This all took place within a minute or two.

Mr. Vernon snarled, “Give me the goddamn controls!”

I let him fly. Instantly, the aircraft was rock steady again.

He looked at me severely and said, “Pathetic. Try again.”

I did. It was a long training session.

Prior to me going solo, we mostly worked on emergency procedures. The main exercise was how to react in an engine failure. This was a big deal. If the engine quits, a pilot has one, and only one chance, to land the helicopter safely. Even that one chance is kind of iffy. In an engine failure, the pilot has maybe a minute or two to find a landing space, keep the rotor rpm’s up by taking all the pitch out of the blades, and then, at exactly the right second, bring the pitch back into the rotor system to provide a momentary cushion of air to prevent a fatal crash.

Good times.

I went one morning with Mr. Vernon for a training flight. The sky was full of other student pilots. Mr. Vernon wanted me to fly at a thousand feet, and go to a nearby stage field to practice maneuvers. Remember that the TH-55 has a throttle to control the engine. There is a failsafe mechanism that prevents a pilot from turning the engine off in flight. However, a pilot can turn the engine down to idle, which has the same practical effect. By that I mean the helicopter falls out of the sky when the engine is operating at idle. Helicopters have the glide path of a refrigerator: straight down.

I was flying toward the stage field; fat, dumb, and happy. Mr. Vernon was chain smoking Lucky Strikes, lighting one off the other, and tossing the butts out of the aircraft. Then he shouted at me over the headset,

“Don’t you see that aircraft at 2:00?!”

I looked to my right to find the mystery helicopter. At that moment Mr. Vernon cranked the throttle down to idle.

A lot of things happened at once. The engine suddenly got very, very quiet. A number of red lights flashed in the cockpit. A loud beeping sound from the headset pounded my eardrums. The helicopter started to drop, and I could feel it in the pit of my stomach. The rotors turned ever more slowly.

Mr. Vernon yelled, “JESUS FUCKING CHRIST! Do something!”

I pushed the cyclic forward to get more airspeed. I slammed the collective stick down to take the pitch out of the blades and get the rotor rpm back up. I looked frantically for a landing space as the ground rushed up. I could distinctly make out the individual leaves on the trees closing in on us.

Mr. Vernon, “Give me the controls!”

I did so gladly.

He cranked up the throttle, got power to the rotor system, and pulled us up and out of the tree line. His motions were smooth and assured.

Once we got back up to altitude, he said,

“You have the controls.”

I replied, “I have the controls.”

There was a momentary silence. He lit up. He took a long drag. Then he said,

“We all would have fucking died. What am I going to do with you?’

I had no answer.

A few days later, when I walked into the briefing room, Mr. Vernon looked up from his coffee.

He tossed me the aircraft keys.

“Here. Bring it back in one piece.”

I did.

A Little Boy

October 27th, 2020

“Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear
It’s too late when we die
To admit we don’t see eye to eye

I wasn’t there that morning
When my Father passed away
I didn’t get to tell him
All the things I had to say”

Mike Rutherford (of “Mike and the Mechanics” and “Genesis”)

I had been walking with Weston nearly each day that I was visiting him down in Texas. Weston is twenty months old. He doesn’t talk much, but he communicates quite well. He understands what other people say, even though he can’t often give them a verbal reply.

Weston is Hans’ son, and Hans is mine. I enjoyed walking outside with Weston. We went far from his home on our journeys. Sometimes, the two of us wandered for ten blocks, almost half a mile. I let him go wherever he liked, as long as he stayed out of danger. Weston wore me out. It wasn’t so much the distance traveled that tired me; it was more the constant vigilance required to keep a nearly two year old boy from getting hurt. He never wandered into traffic, but he was sometimes unsteady on his feet. It was not unusual for him to get ahead of himself, and then do a lip stand on the asphalt.

If Weston fell, he cried for a moment, but only for a moment. Then he would struggle out of my arms to continue his safari. He’s a very resilient boy.

Weston is a sturdy lad. He is solidly built, with a large head. He has reddish blond hair of an extremely fine texture. His hair covers his head, but it seems almost translucent in the sunlight. Weston has a prominent forehead and eyebrows that are almost invisible. He has skin that will never tan. His eyes are dark grey, like the color of stormy weather on the horizon. He has a small nose and chubby cheeks. Weston always has a look of fierce concentration on his face. He seems serious beyond his few years. He is capable of smiling, but he doesn’t do it often.

Weston is curious about everything. That is appropriate for his age. He is intent upon exploring his world, and woe to those who would keep him from doing so. He likes to have tiny conversations with himself as we walk together. He often points to something, and then he makes comments that only he comprehends. Or, he will point and loudly say, “Ha!”, as if he were telling a tree or a dog something profound. Weston is very observant of his surroundings, but he also seems to have a very entertaining interior world.

Yesterday, on our last walk, Hans joined us. Hans is tall and lanky, and Gabi (Weston’s mom and Hans’ wife) is convinced that eventually Weston will also be that way. Hans is a head taller than I am. I am not sure why, but it is so.

As we started our walk, I grabbed Hans’ shoulder, and I told him,

“You’re a good daddy.”

Hans shrugged. “I haven’t done much.”

I told him, “You’ve done what you need to do.”

I looked closely at Hans. He’s been through a lot. War. Violence. Physical pain. My little boy is long gone. I had to look up to meet the eyes of a stranger. Maybe that’s not quite right. I was gazing at a man who I know better than almost anyone else, but who is also is a riddle to me.

The three of us didn’t talk much as we strolled along. Weston would grab my pinky with his little hand as we came to a curb. He needed my hand for balance as climbed up to the sidewalk from the street. Hans watched his son carefully mount the next obstacle.

Weston stopped to watch a mail carrier fill up the post boxes at an apartment complex. The boy was fascinated. He stood there with his hands folded in front of him as the woman put letters into the holes. The Black lady smiled at Weston. He didn’t smile back. He was too interested in her work to exchange pleasantries.

Weston stopped to watch the local dogs and cats. He became uncommonly interested in an old car parked on the street. He occasionally looked up at me. He was ever wondering, ever in motion.

Weston did not want to go back, even though he was growing weary.

I said to Hans, “He’s stubborn. He gets that from me.”

Hans chuckled, and smiled at me. He made no other response.

It was hard for me to look at Weston and not have twisted memories interfere with the experience.

I told Hans,

“I can’t remember if you were like Weston when you were his age.”

Hans shrugged again, and asked me,

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. I can’t remember how I was either.”

I did remember other things: a man’s voice screaming threats. There was the sharp impact of a slap or a kick. I knew again the feeling of terror in the pit of my stomach from many years ago.

Weston was getting hot and tired. His face was flushed and he was irritable.

Hans lifted him up. Weston relaxed in Hans’ strong arms. The boy rested his tired head on his dad’s shoulders.

Hans said, “C’mon, Weston. Let’s go home.”

“Dreaming of Mercy Street
Where you’re inside out
Dreaming of mercy
In your daddy’s arms again
Dreaming of Mercy Street
Swear they moved that sign
Dreaming of mercy
In your daddy’s arms” – Peter Gabriel

The Virus (and Race) in Forrest City

October 20th, 2020

I drove for eleven hours yesterday, and at the end of the ride I could feel the road weariness. Fatigue has a way of sneaking up on me. I was okay while I was behind the wheel, mindlessly cruising along I-40 in Arkansas. It wasn’t until I dragged myself out of the driver’s seat that I realized how tired I really was.

I found myself at a hotel in Forrest City. It seemed to be all right as far as hotels go. Karin, who had made a similar journey in August, had encouraged me to go with more upscale type of lodging. I took her advice. I went into the lobby of the Holiday Inn Express and I asked the lady behind the Plexiglas if they had any rooms.

The woman told me that they had a few rooms left. I told her that I was looking for something cheap and simple. She frowned a bit and said that they were rather full. However, she could offer me a suite, if I wanted that.

I shrugged.

The lady told me the price for the suite. I cringed.

She looked at me with sympathy and asked, “Do you still want it?”

I shrugged again in defeat and told her, “I’m not driving any more today.”

The woman filled out the paperwork and had me sign whatever needed to be signed.

I asked her wearily, “Where can I buy some beer?”

She said gently in her southern drawl, “Well, the Shell station across the street sells beer. You can get it there.”

I did. Blue Moon Belgian ale.

Note: This hotel employee was white.

After going to the gas station, I went back to the hotel and found my suite. It was both spacious and uncleaned. That confused me. I thought that maybe I hadn’t understood the check in times. In any case, I dumped my belongings into my new digs, and waited to see what would happen.

Nothing did.

I roused myself to go outside my room and talk with one of the women who were cleaning the hotel rooms. I asked one of them about my accommodations.

The woman, who was Black, became visibly upset. She asked me,

Who gave you Room 224?”

I answered, “The lady at the desk.”

The cleaning woman replied, “That’s my room. They weren’t supposed to rent that one out. I ain’t even come close to cleaning it yet.”

I told her, “It’s okay. Get to it whenever you can. I’m okay in there. I just wanted you to know that nobody has been in there yet.”

The woman was still edgy. I had hurt her pride, and it showed.

I went back to my suite and I cracked open a beer. The woman came into the room shortly thereafter. She ignored me. I tried to ignore her. It was awkward. The maid did her job quickly and efficiently. She asked me,

“It going to bother you if I vacuum?”

I told her ‘no’.

She cleaned the carpet, and then she walked out. I thanked her for her work. She ignored what I said.

I had some quiet for a while.

Then I got hungry.

I ventured forth into the pandemic wilderness of Arkansas. My choices for food were very limited. I had had two beers, so I didn’t want to drive at all. I decided to wander down to the local Wendy’s to grab a burger. It seemed like a simple enough decision.

I walked into the Wendy’s with my mask on. I looked at the menu for a while. Then a very tall Black man confronted me. He said,

“This dining room is CLOSED. You need to go in the drive through.”

I answered, “I don’t have a car. I walked here.”

The man was unperturbed. He told me,

“Well, y’all just go in the drive through line. It be okay.”

I did.

It wasn’t okay.

I felt like a damn fool standing in the line where there were only other cars. I stood in front of the call in box, and I tried to give my order.

“Hi, you hear me?”

No answer.

“Anybody there?”

Dead silence.

I was ready to walk away. Fuck this.

As I moved aside, a Black man in a battered minivan talked to me. He was in the line behind me. He said,

“Hey man, you trying to order? Let me pull up closer, and then you try to order again.”

He drove up. I tried again. It worked. I asked for a double burger; no fries, no drink.

It continued to be weird. I walked to the next window to pay for my food.

The tall man walked out of the front door and yelled to me,

“Hey, you order the burger?”

I shouted back, “Yeah.”

He said, “It’s coming up. Wait here for it.”

I told him, “I still got to pay for it!”

He nodded and went back inside.

I got to the little window where money changes hands. A chubby white girl in the window wanted my cash. I asked her,

“Can I pay for the guy behind me in line?”

She smiled and said, “Sure.”

I pulled a twenty out of my wallet.

The girl took my money and gave me change. She asked me if I wanted a receipt for the other guy. I told her no. I told her to give him his own receipt.

I still didn’t get my burger. This bothered me since I was hungry.

The man who had offered me help got to the payment booth, and was immediately confused. Good. No good deed goes unpunished.

He drove past me as I was impatiently waiting for my meal. He yelled out the car window,

“God bless you , brother!”

I said the same to him.

I grew weary of waiting for my food. Then the tall Black man shouted at me,

“Hey! Come to this window! We good!”

I went back to the payment window.

The tall man handed me a bag with my burger, and a portion of French fries, and a soda that I had never asked for.

He gave me a serious look, and then he nodded.

I left very early the next morning.

The Black girl at the desk asked me how my stay was.

I asked the girl to do me a favor.

“Please tell the woman who cleaned my room that she did an excellent job. Tell her that.”

The young woman smiled and said, “That would be Miss Savannah. I will definitely tell her.”