How Much?

April 24th, 2016

 

Hans was talking to us about the house fire. He showed us a picture of the ruin that used to be his Harley. Hans told me that the motor melted in the heat of the blaze. He started mentioning other things that he had lost. Hans had no renters insurance, so what he lost really is lost.

 

Hans said, “What hurts is losing those guns and all that ammo.”

 

I asked Hans, “So, how much ammo did you have in the house?”

 

Hans replied, “About twenty thousand rounds.”

 

“How much?!”

 

“Twenty thousand rounds.”

 

“Twenty THOUSAND rounds?!”

 

Hans looked at me like I was either deaf or stupid, and said, “Yes, twenty thousand rounds. Why?”

 

“And you needed that much ammo for what?”

 

“Well, it wasn’t for something stupid, like a zombie apocalypse. It was for martial law.”

 

“You’re expecting martial law?”

 

Hans smiled and said, “You never know.”

 

“Oh.”

 

Wanna Go Shooting?

April 24th, 2016

 

The day that Karin and I arrived in Texas, Hans asked me if I wanted to go out to the country and shoot with his friends. Karin heard him, and she asked if she could come along with us. Hans frowned and said, “Well, I guess you could, but I don’t know what you would do there.” Karin suggested that she could take her knitting along. Hans sighed deeply. Then Karin took the hint, and said, “It’s okay. You two just go and have fun”, and she gave Hans a motherly smile. He just shook his head.

 

The next morning Hans drove up to get me in his Dodge Ram 2500 Heavy Duty Cummins Turbo Diesel with the extended cab and the eight-foot-long bed. Hans usually needs two attempts to get the truck into a parking space. It’s a nice vehicle, except that Hans can’t open the tailgate any more, ever since he backed into that big stump in his buddy’s front yard. Hans bent the hell out of the rear bumper, and he hasn’t had the time or money to replace it. He did put an “Iraqi Vet” sticker on it. I climbed into the cab with him, and shoved aside the empty Pall Mall packs and Monster cans.

 

Hans told me that we needed to stop and buy some ammunition. What that really meant is that needed to buy some ammunition. So, we went to Gander Mountain to get some shotgun shells, and some .45 Long Colt ammo for his revolver, “The Judge”. It was breath-taking for me to realize how expensive ammunition is. Shooting a weapon is not cheap. Not at all.

 

Hans drove us out to his friend’s farm (Philip raises cattle) near Iola. The other guys were already there. A couple trucks were parked under a tree near Philip’s trailer house. Boston, aka Jim, had the bed of his pickup full of weapons, literally. Philip and his father, Lenny, also had their various firearms with them. There was a card table under the tree covered with boxes of ammo, all kinds. Boston went out in the field and set up some targets. He placed treated wooden boards (4″ X 12″ X 12″) at varying distances: 100 yards, 50 years, and 20 yards away. To prop up the nearest wooden target, Boston placed an old tire on a metal rim behind the wood. Hans got his shotguns and his handguns out of the Dodge.

 

I lost track of exactly what we all had for firearms. I know that we had Hans’ 1911 45 pistol (special ops edition), and The Judge. Hans also had his Mossberg 853 over-under shotgun, and his side-by-side. Let’s see: for handguns we had a 357 mag, a 44 magnum, and a 9mm. For longer range, we had a .22 rifle with a scope, 17mm bolt action rifle, an AR-15 assault rifle (with a forty round banana clip, and an AK-47. Philip had a couple other shotguns, and I think there were a few other miscellaneous pieces.

 

Since I was the new kid, everybody there wanted me to try out their favorite gun. Lenny came up to me and showed me his 454 “Raging Bull”. He asked me if I wanted to fire it.Then he opened the chamber and showed me one of the rounds. He said, “I want you to know what you are getting into here”, as he smiled.

 

Now, the Raging Bull is an absurdly large revolver. It is almost a parody of what Dirty Harry carried. The rounds are huge. Lenny handed me the weapon, and I lifted it up and balanced it with both hands.

 

Lenny said, “You’all might want to cock the hammer back. The trigger pulls hard.” I pulled the hammer back, and sighted the gun on the nearest target.

 

Lenny grinned and told me, “It’s got a bit of a kick.”

 

I took a deep breath, and pulled slowly on the trigger…

 

I went completely deaf for the next five minutes. That was a bit disturbing. On the other hand, I was relieved to know that I hadn’t broken my wrist when I fired off the shot and the pistol kicked back. I shakily handed the gun back to Lenny. He smiled and said, “Let me give her a try.”  He popped off another round at the same target. I bet it was loud when he fired, but I couldn’t tell.

 

Philip walked over to the target. He said, “Yeah, both shots hit the wood. One of them went all the way through the wood, and the tire, and the rim.”

 

We took turns firing for the next couple hours. Philip tossed up some skeet for us to shoot. Hans hit all the clay pigeons, five out of five. Hans is remarkably competent with weapons of all sorts. That’s not a big surprise really. It was his profession.

 

I liked shooting the AR-15. It’s essentially just a civilian version of an M-16, except that you can’t fire it in a fully automatic mode. I have been informed that it is possible to fix that particular problem. When I shot it, it made me remember things. I hadn’t fired one for almost forty years, and the smell of the gunpowder and the tinkle of the brass shell casings reminded me of times long past. I managed to hit a few things, and that felt satisfying.

 

Philip asked me if I wanted a beer. I told him that maybe we should wait until we put all the guns away. Boston laughed and said, “Hell, Frank, you’re in Texas now. We don’t have stop shooting before we have a beer!” I waited.

 

We shot until Philip and Lenny had to get ready to go to a wedding. Then everybody packed up their guns and ammo. We left Philip’s dirt driveway covered with brass. He didn’t mind. I enjoyed meeting Hans’ friends and I told him so. We had fun.

 

 

Bly Mountain

June 4th, 2017

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Blaze, Maire, and Jonathan. The Holy Families. Every family is a holy family. Every family struggles mightily with God and with men. The problem, at least for Catholics, is that most families cannot compete with The Holy Family, the model family in which two members never committed a sin. The bar is set too high. We might do better to compare ourselves to the families of the Old Testament, the families of the patriarchs. Those were real families. The Holy Family is an image of what we wish we could be. The families in Genesis are examples of who we are.

Karin and I wanted to see Maire and Jonathan, and, of course, their baby boy, Blaze. Maire is our niece. The visit to this family was the high water mark of our trip. After seeing Blaze and Jon and Maire, Karin and I were going to head home. We would venture no further than Bly Mountain. This place would be the last place we would explore on the outward part of the journey. We had toyed with the idea of going further, to Seattle maybe. That didn’t happen. For us, Bly Mountain was the end of the world.

We went to Bly Mountain after spending a weekend with the Trappists at New Clairvaux. We spent most of that Monday driving north through Red Bluff, Redding, and Weed. Mount Shasta loomed near us for most of the ride. Once in Oregon, we headed generally in the direction of Klamath Falls. Klamath Falls is still quite a distance from the home of Jon and Maire. The nearest community to them is Bonanza; a cluster of buildings that house people willing to sell you the basic necessities at inflated prices.

As usual, the GPS got us close. On our trip we tended to visit people and places that didn’t seem to have exact locations. Maire had told us that they lived on a country road in the mountains. Their road was to be the third barely passable, deeply rutted, dirt road that we attempted with the Corolla. We made it to Maire’s home, but it was a challenge.

Jon and Maire own a chunk of land on the mountain.  It has towering ponderosa pines and manzanita growing on it. Rocks grow there too. And weed. Don’t forget about the weed. Weed is important to this story.

Maire, Jon, and Blaze live in campers. I think they own five vehicles, one of which actually runs.  They have no running water. They rent a porta potty. They heat and cook with propane. They run a generator for occasional electricity use. To say that they have a simple lifestyle would be a gross understatement.

I don’t know what they do with their garbage. In other places, such as Texas, they might burn it. However, parts of Oregon, like California, have a very dry climate, and I am pretty sure that any open fire would be a cause of concern for the neighbors.

A young man, named Earl, lives on the property with Maire and Jonathan. I’m not sure what he does. All I know is that he is there.

When we arrived, Maire greeted us. Jon and Earl were inside one of the campers watching old episodes of Sanford and Son. That seemed oddly appropriate. Jon and Maire live with chaos. To me, everything on the land looked to be in a state of utter disarray. I’m the kind of person who compulsively picks up things to put them away. Jon and Maire’s home induced in me a kind of sensory overload. I couldn’t imagine where I would even start.

Maire brought out Blaze. Blaze is several months old, not quite ready to crawl. He’s a good-looking young man, and he seems to be a happy baby. Maire obviously loves the little boy, and she takes good care of him. Blaze was clean and well-fed and willing to be held by Karin. Some people say that Blaze looks a little like Hans did when he was a baby. Some say that he looks like Jonathan. I think he looks like Blaze.

Jon and Maire gave us a tour of the property. The land slopes sharply downward from the dirt road. There is a creek bed which was dry when we saw it. Jon had attempted to build a foundation for a greenhouse a ways up from the stream bed. His choice of location was unfortunate because the foundation flooded out during the spring snow melt. They will have to move the cinder blocks and find a place higher up the hill. Jon and Earl had built some rough steps into the hillside. They looked good, and I am sure they are quite useful.

A friend of Jonathan’s showed up. Jon and the other man tried to start up Maire’s car. That didn’t work, but at least Jonathan discovered what the problem with the car was. Then Karin and I sat with Jon and Maire under an awning next to one of the campers. Jon’s friend was with us for a while. Maire wanted to offer Karin some water, but they were out of drinking water. Jonathan found me a Coke.  As the conversation went on, we found out that Jonathan and Maire were also out of propane and a number of other items, including money.

They do have marijuana. Jon passed around a pipe while we were sitting together. Karin and I declined to take a hit. Jon’s friend took a puff, as did Jon and Maire. Jon and Maire don’t drink, but weed is definitely part of their lives. They have twelve plants, enough for personal use and to sell a bit on the side. Their neighbors have a rather large greenhouse full of plants. From what I could gather, everybody on the mountain is a grower.

Somehow, the folks on the mountain remind me of the moonshiners in the Appalachians. There is that backwoods feel to the place. There is also a distrust of outsiders. As Maire noted, there is the danger of strangers stealing plants, and there is a desire on the part of the residents to keep local law enforcement at a respectful distance. People are encouraged to grow weed discreetly. Maire also mentioned that everybody on the mountain has dogs and/or guns. There is a definite hillbilly vibe on the mountain. The local economy seems to be based on barter to a certain extent, weed being an acceptable form of currency.

Maire spends her days caring for Blaze. Jonathan works part time fixing machines for the locals. He works on a “cash only” basis. For a variety of reasons, Jon prefers to stay under the radar. Jon has a plans for the future, like eventually buying a backhoe. For the present, this holy family is dirt poor and likely to stay that way. That’s just how things are.

Maire remarked that Blaze will probably grow up like Mowgli, the character in The Jungle Book. She might not be far off the mark. Blaze will have an unconventional childhood. He won’t be raised by wolves, but they do have five dogs. Blaze definitely won’t experience the standard middle class upbringing.

Maire was happy to see us. She is a lonely young woman. Often she is alone with Blaze. Jon goes off to work on projects, and Maire is there by herself with Blaze. Both Jon and Maire are Texans. They are in exile, basically. I think that they would like to move back to Texas, but that is not a viable option, not now. Maire longs to see her family, and the geographical distance makes it difficult for that to happen.

We talked about Maire’s father. Marc was my younger brother. He died in 1998 in a car wreck, when Maire was only five years old. She remembers the day Marc died. It’s been almost twenty years since Marc left her life, and Karin and I are the links between Maire and her dad. So, it was important for us to be with her. Marc’s middle name was Blaise, and that explains the baby’s name. I told some stories about Marc. I am sure that Maire had heard them all before. It doesn’t matter. Some things are worth repeating.

We decided to make a trip into town. We packed everybody, except Jon and Earl, into the Toyota, and we went down the mountain to Bonanza. We stopped to buy propane and water. We got some Coke, and a pack of smokes for Jon. I got a six pack of Deschutes beer. It’s made in Bend, which is only a couple hours away. We stopped at the local café to buy some sandwiches to take back home for supper. We talked and passed around Blaze. He was even okay with me holding him.

The second ride up the mountain wasn’t quite as stressful. We knew where the potholes and ruts were this time. We went to one of the campers and ate. Then we all sat around and talked. Earl came to hang out with us. He drinks beer, so he and I had a couple Deschutes. Earl wore a torn, black sweatshirt, and black overalls. He had a reddish beard and a tendency to speak slowly. Jon sat there in his overalls. His hair and beard were all wild and unkempt; a cross between Jesus and Charlie Manson. Maire wore t-shirt and jeans, holding and feeding Blaze. We sat until the sun went down behind the trees.

When it got dark, Karin and I crawled into the sleeping area of one of the campers. We wrapped ourselves in a blanket that we had in the car. It got cold that night.

I laid down in the camper and thought about Jon and Maire and Blaze. They were definitely struggling. They really didn’t have a handle on things. I thought back to when Hans was born, thirty years ago. Karin and I struggled then. We had no idea what we were doing either. No parent has a clue. Mary and Joseph didn’t know. Every family is a new experiment in creation, and there is no instruction book.

No two people start a family with a clean slate. Each person has some history, has some baggage. Even with the best of intentions, genetics takes a toll. Some of the past becomes part of the future. Every new life contains an echo of previous lives.

All that matters is love. As a wise man once told me, “If you act out of love, you can’t go too far wrong.” Jon and Maire love Blaze, and they love each other. That will get all them through life. It will still be hard, and they will still have problems, but they will be okay.

They are a holy family.

 

 

Earth Abides

June 1st, 2017

 

“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.” – Dorothy Day

Calaveras County is hill country. A person is hard-pressed to find a horizontal surface anywhere. The land starts off with golden hills of grass, and then becomes covered with forests of pine in the higher altitudes. The roads become progressively more interesting as a person drives into the mountains. They require attentive minds and good brakes. Most of them, even Sheep Ranch Road, are paved. Sheep Ranch is all steep grades and switchbacks. It has many gorgeous views and very few shoulders. The road seems challenging, that is, until a person gets on Armstrong Road.

Armstrong Road barely deserves the name. It is ragged, red scar that winds uncertainly through the mountains. We followed its bloody, crooked path toward the Earth Abides Catholic Worker Farm. The GPS told us to keep going, although my gut said to stop. We finally saw a sign indicating that we were, in fact, near the right place.  There, up ahead on a hill, was Catherine House, the place where we were going to stay.

I tried to crawl up the hill in 1st gear. This was a blunder. The dirt road had a deep, winding rut in it that I could not avoid. I put a wheel in the rut and bottomed out the Toyota. The car stalled out, and numerous warning lights went on. There was a moment of heartfelt swearing in the car.

I heard a voice cheerfully say, ”We’re not in the city anymore.”

It was Marcus. I had met Marcus in Las Vegas the month before. He was the guy who picked me up when I got released from jail. The jail time was due to some unpleasantness at Creech AFB. Marcus and I had later corresponded, and he was okay with Karin and me visiting the farm for a while.

I opened the car door, and was immediately greeted by a nanny goat. The goat put her head into the car, eager to see the interior of a Corolla.

“Nox, get over here!” Marcus called out.

I asked, “Nox?”

Marcus took her by the scruff of the neck and said, “Yeah, ‘Nox’. She has a sister named ‘Equi’. They were born on the spring equinox.”

“Aaaaahhhh…”

We had to move the car. It was blocking a neighbor’s access to Armstrong Road. Karin moved into the driver seat, and Marcus guided her to place of safety. We didn’t attempt to go up the hill again. Actually, I looked at our track, and I was amazed that we had come as far as we had.

We grabbed out possessions out of the car and walked up to the house. Chelsea was there in the kitchen, preparing supper. Chelsea is the wife of Marcus. She has a divinity school degree, and she is getting ready to do pastoral work in a city in the vicinity. Chelsea and Marcus moved to Earth Abides several years ago, and they are its caretakers.

Marcus is a Catholic Worker. For those who do not know what that means, a Catholic Worker is basically a Catholic anarchist, although that definition is woefully inadequate. Catholic Workers are dead serious about the Gospels, especially the Beatitudes. They are all about serving the poor and helping the oppressed. They are usually pacifists, and they are as counter-cultural as people can possibly get. They tend to live in community, and these communities tend to have rather fluid memberships. A Catholic Worker walks that fine line between being holy and just being bat-shit crazy.

Marcus explained to us the difference between urban Catholic Workers and the people on the farms. Urban Catholic Workers run homes for the homeless, the feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and rail against the powers that be. The Catholic Workers on the farms prepare the world for a post-industrial future. They are islands of self-sustaining community in a self-destructive capitalist society. They are also places of peaceful sanctuary. This not to say that the rural folk are not political. They are political. Marcus certainly is.

Both Marcus and Chelsea have small tattoos that look like hearts superimposed upon anarchy symbols. Marcus told us they represent “lovarchy”. The origin of that term seems a bit fuzzy. Marcus doesn’t claim to have invented it. Even if he did, as a Catholic Worker, he certainly wouldn’t have filed to make it a trademark. The word “lovarchy” could mean a combination of love and anarchy. Marcus prefers to think of it as “the rule of love” in the world. That works.

After supper, Chelsea and Marcus took Karin and me down the hill to the hut where they keep the goats. When we got there, Chelsea asked us,

“Do you want to hold a baby goat?”

I had never done that before, but why not? The little goat settled into my arms and rested, warm and soft, against my shoulder. Meanwhile, Marcus milked the mother goat. The babies were not consuming enough milk, so Marcus needed to milk her to relieve the pressure.

Chelsea told us, ”Goat milk is good when it’s fresh. After a while, it gets kind of goaty.”

“Goaty?”

“Well, it tastes a little gamey.”

Once the goats were settled, Marcus wanted to show the sunset to Karin and me. Up higher on the mountain the sunset is spectacular, and it was getting late already. We hiked up the dirt road past Catherine House, and then further up the mountain.

On the way we heard the sound of dogs barking. Then we saw the dogs, and then we saw their owner. The man was a neighbor of Marcus and Chelsea. He was tall with flaming red hair that he tied into a ponytail. He had a red goatee and a broad, toothy smile. He wore a green shirt over pajama pants and sandals. He had earrings.

The two dogs were part border collie. I think that one of them was named “Charisma”. The dogs became your friends forever if you just tossed them a pine cone. The ground was littered with huge cones that the dogs would retrieve until the cone had completely disintegrated. Then they wanted you to throw another pine cone.

I asked the man’s name. He said, “Fallah.”

“Fallah? Is that Arabic, maybe?”

Fallah smiled and said, “No, it’s just a name that gave to myself. It’s like, you know, balance is very important to me. So, I made up a name using letters in the middle row of the keyboard. Yeah.”

“Yeah…” I replied.

We watched the sunset. It was worth the trek up the hill. We left before it got completely dark. Marcus went off to do more farm chores. Karin and I went to bed. With no internet, and no phone reception, there wasn’t much point in staying up.

Karin got up and had breakfast on our own. We walked down to the car and figured out how to get it back down the road without ripping off the oil pan. We looked at the landscape. The farm is beautiful. There is a large meadow covered with the purple flowers of vetch, as well as blue lupine, clover, and some yellow blossoms that we couldn’t identify. Roses grow near the house. The whole area is surrounded by towering pine trees. There are also junipers and lots of manzanita. The goats like manzanita.

In the meantime, Marcus had taken care of some computer work with his friend, Tom. Chelsea had left early to go on a church tour of various cities in California.

When Marcus came back, he gave us the nickel tour of the farm. They have alpacas, goats, and chickens. There are several buildings on the property besides Catherine House. The farm itself consists of eighty acres on the mountainside. There are several gardens, all of which are irrigated. For years, ever since the farm started in 1976, these gardens had to be irrigated by hand. Not anymore.

The farm has a large array of solar panels that provide electricity to the farm. The photovoltaic system is what powers the irrigation pumps and allows the gardens to flourish. The solar power also provides electricity to the various buildings. Marcus and the other residents of the farm are very careful about their use of electricity. They are off the grid, so what the sun provides is all they have.

Marcus wanted to cut down some pines. The pine bark beetle has been devastating the stands of trees on the farm. The drought made the tress less resistant to beetle infestation and the resulting fungal infections. Marcus estimates that there are 146 dead or dying pines on the property. Of those, he has been able to cut down about fifty. The farm has a rule that nobody can fell trees without another person within shouting distant. With Karin and myself nearby, Marcus could be a lumberjack.

It is important for him to get the trees down, because in a wildfire, they go up like torches. Wildfires are a constant threat in the area. Recent fires burned down nearly 10% of the trees in Calaveras County. Marcus showed me some twisted strips of melted aluminum. They were once part of a travel trailer that was caught up in one of the fires.

Marcus asked me, “Ever use a chain saw?”

“No.”

“Wanna learn?”

“Yes.”

So, I learned how to operate a chain saw. Marcus had two of them, one gas-powered and one electric. Marcus also explained how to fell a tree. He figured out what direction he wanted it to fall. Then he cut a wedge-shaped chunk out of the side in the direction of the fall. Then he started cutting on the other side of the pine.

That didn’t quite work out. The pine leaned in the wrong direction and the blade of the chain saw got caught in the cut. Marcus had me grab a plastic wedge and a sledge hammer from the out building, so that he could get a wider gap in the cut. Then he loosened the saw blade to finish the cut. Eventually, the tree toppled in the right direction as Marcus yelled, “Timber!” Then Marcus went off to the house to make us some lunch, as I cut off branches for the slash pile, and cut the trunk into rounds. The rounds have funky blue streaks in them from the fungal infection. The wood looks kind of cool that way.

While Marcus was teaching me the ways of the forest, Karin was inside the building using the spinning wheel. She spent her time spinning alpaca fiber. Karin is an old hand at this sort of thing. I bought her a spinning wheel when we got engaged to be married, many years ago. Spinning fiber was like being home again. Later in the day, Karin taught Marcus how to spin.

Our meals at Earth Abides demonstrated the self-sufficiency of the farm. We ate salad from the garden, cooked fresh eggs, and drank goat milk. Earth Abides is not totally able to stand alone, but gets pretty close. In a way, it’s a bit like the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. It’s in the world, but not of the world.

Marcus explained how he and Chelsea offered HIV/AIDS retreats for sick people in the San Francisco Bay area. They would bring HIV positive folks to Earth Abides for three-day retreats, just to get them away from the madness of the city. Catherine House is a good place to do that. It’s homey place. I like the artwork inside. On one wall they have an enormous, blown up photograph of the Horsehead Nebula in the constellation of Orion. There are also icons, and a photograph of Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Workers.

At lunch we met Tom, another person living on the farm. Tom is an environmentalist/spiritualist kind of guy. He is making a presentation in the near future about ecology. He came to California from Minnesota years ago with his wife. His wife went back home. He didn’t.

Tom took Karin and me for a walk down by a dry creek bed. He showed the old grinding stones of the Miwok Indians. Back before the Gold Rush, the Miwoks lived in the area. They ground acorns into meal on the stones, and then soaked the acorn meal in the stream (when it flowed in the spring) to get out the tannic acid. When the whites came, the Miwoks were decimated. All that’s left of their culture are these stones, all of them with bored with deep holes from ages of grinding. The stones somehow reminded me of Original Sin. The story here seems to start with violence and death.

After lunch I went with Marcus to cut more trees. He cut one that managed to get snagged in the branches of another pine. He then cut down that pine, but not until doing some careful planning. It’s obvious to me that felling trees is more of an art than a science. There is guesswork involved, and it is important to guess right. Later, I folded some laundry that was hanging on the line. Marcus started shoveling compost that too close to the house (the bears were getting into it). I helped him get the nasty pile over to the garden.

Karin and I had supper in the house. Marcus talked with us later. We slept. In the morning we packed up our belongings. Marcus helped us to get the car turned around on the road, and going in the correct direction. We said our goodbyes. We all hugged.

It was good.

Water

May 30th, 2017

 

“We spotted the ocean at the head of the trail

Where are we going, so far away?

And somebody told me that this is the place

Where everything’s better, everything’s safe.”

From Toad the Wet Sprocket, “Walk on the Ocean”

 

We had time to kill. We planned to meet with Jody in Buellton at about 4:00 PM, and it was only a little after noon time. We were driving along US101, where the road starts to hug the coast just south of Ventura. The temperature dropped and the sky became overcast with thick clouds. The ocean was over to our left, occasionally visible from the highway.

Karin and I planned on going to the seashore. That was mandatory. It had to happen. Somehow, some way, we were go to the water. We had driven too far, for too long, not to visit the Pacific Ocean. We had not been to the beach on the in California since 1988, and we were due, overdue. Karin had thought to visit Monterey, where we had lived all those years ago. It didn’t matter to me where we met the ocean, as long as we embraced it.

Karin was driving. She asked, “Do you think we should stop somewhere?”

I saw a sign, as we breezed along, that said, “Channel Islands National Park.”

“You wanna got to the Channel Islands?”

“Sure. Do we have time for that?”

“Hell yeah. We’re on vacation. Let’s do it. Next exit.”

A mile later, we pulled off of US101 and went down some side roads to the coast. We passed some berry fields and then we arrived at the marina. There were boats to our right and dunes to our left. We saw a sign for the National Park, and pulled into a parking lot near the shore.

It hit us as soon as we opened the car doors. There was that pungent smell of the sea; that fishy, salty scent that whispered to us, “You’re home.” We both breathed in deeply. It has been sooooo long since we had smelled the ocean. The  air was cold. The wind whipped us from the west, and clouds blocked the sun. We both wanted a sweater. It was just like summer in Monterey. It really did feel like home.

Karin and I stared out at the ocean. Fog made everything indistinct. Somewhere, out in the distance, were the Channel Islands. We couldn’t see them, but we could see the offshore oil platforms. Closer to us were the breakwaters, and protected by them were kids playing on the beach. A long spit of land extended into the sea. On the right side of it were the breakwaters. On the other side, the waves rolled in, white-capped and fierce. They slammed against the tan-colored sand and then withdrew in frustration. They did it over and over again. There was that endless roar of the waves. A sound old beyond reckoning, but somehow fresh to our ears. I loved it.

Karin and walked past the oleanders to the welcome center for the park. It was a small building at the marina. We went inside to look at the different displays. Some of them described the flora and fauna of the islands. Some of the displays explained the effects of the cold ocean current. There was a salt pond filled with crab and fish. There was a garden outside with a variety of plants from the islands. There was the ubiquitous gift shop, where we bought a couple postcards.

I asked the park ranger if they had excursions to the Channel Islands. He told me that a private company offered all-day trips to the islands, but the Park Service did not. This kind of sucked, because Karin and I had not planned to spend an entire day in Ventura.

The disappointment that Karin and I experienced concerning a possible visit to the Channel Islands was something that we experienced often during the trip. There were many opportunities to see and do things, if we just hung around a little bit longer. The problem with all these chances for new and life-enhancing experiences was that they all cost money. We are retired, on a limited income. Actually, we are on no income.  Also, if we had said “yes” to every opportunity to expand our horizons, we still would not be home. Maybe that would be okay. I don’t know.  I do know that there is just too much out there. A human cannot possibly take it all in. A person has to choose, and sometimes that means choosing between two things, each of which is very attractive. We wanted to visit with an old friend in Buellton. We wanted to see the Channel Islands. We decided to go to Buellton, but not right away.

Our next decision was to find a place to get lunch. Off to the marina. We found a tiny restaurant that just happened to be open. Karin and I split a plate of fish and chips. She drank a glass of water, and I nursed a bottle of Modelo Negra. The sun came out, ever so briefly, while we ate. The boats floated and rocked against the pier, and we could hear the gentle sloshing of the water underneath their hulls. We looked at the palm trees and the mountains in the distance. We watched the clouds skid across the sky. We took pictures and texted our kids. It was good.

We walked back to the beach after we got the camera out of the car. The kids were still playing in the surf. Karin and I walked past the life guard to the part of the shore that had no breakwater. Patches of ice plant held the sand in place. The beach was littered with bird feathers, drift wood, and bits of kelp. The wind whistled through my t-shirt, and blew my beard over to one side.

I looked out to sea, and I saw the just the barest outline of an island. Yes, I could see one of the Channel Islands, like a ghost in the distance.

“Karin, look! Out there!”

“Where out there?”

I pointed at the ghost in the mist. “There!”

“What ‘there’ are you talking about?”

“That ‘there’! The ‘there‘ with the island!”

Karin squinted. “Oh, I think I see it. Let me take a picture.”

“You’re going to take a picture of fog?”

“It might turn out.”

“Okay. Whatever.”

I took off my sandals and rolled up my trousers above my knees. I stepped into the ocean. Damn, that water was cold. The waves rolled and crashed against the shore. When the waves receded, the heels of my feet sunk into the wet sand and I nearly lost my balance. I dipped my hand into the seawater. It felt slick, almost like oil. I touched my index finger to my tongue to taste the salt. Another breaker came on strong, and it soaked my trousers. I didn’t care.

I was happy. Truly happy. Little-kid-playing-in-the-surf happy.

Joy.

Jody in Buellton

May 30th, 2017

“Old Friends, old friends

Sat on their park bench like bookends

A newspaper blown through the grass

Falls on the round toes

Of the high shoes of the old friends.” – Paul Simon

 

Jody was a moving target. Karin and I wanted to meet with her, after three decades of separation. We had initially thought that we could visit with Jody in Pacific Grove, near our old stomping grounds at Monterey. That was not possible because Jody wasn’t in Pacific Grove. She wasn’t anywhere, at least not for long. Jody was on the move. She was riding her bicycle in a basically southerly direction, stopping at the old Spanish missions, and exploring a California that was both her home and terra incognita. Jody had a blog at earthpilgrim.org, and she would send us updates on her progress.

Karin and I were also on the move. We were working our way west through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and finally southern California. As we closed in on Jody, we started sending texts. We needed to narrow down times, dates, and locations.

“Jody, where will you be on May 30th?”

“Near Santa Inez.”

How near to Santa Inez?”

“Buellton.”

“When?”

“I’ll get settled there around four. Does that make sense?”

Karin and I had a reservation at a Quality Inn in Buellton. We checked in there before looking for Jody. Buellton is a town of about four thousand people, slightly inland from the coast. It was sunny there, and the hills were golden brown, the color of perfect French fries.

We got a text: “I’m here.”

“Where’s here?”

“Flying Flags RV Park.”

“We’re on our way.”

It’s odd that, even as we approached Jody, her presence seemed more elusive. We got to the RV park, and I couldn’t figure out where she was. The GPS got us really close, but somehow not close enough. We were parked next to some tiny houses, but Jody was at a little campsite that eluded our detection.

“Where the fuck is she?” I growled.

Karin said, “Don’t worry. She’s on her way here. She’s looking for us.”

And so she was. Karin saw her first; a figure in the distance, who was waving and smiling broadly. Jody came to our car. She got in and we drove a short way to her campsite.

Jody had set up her one-person tent, and her bicycle was parked next to it at the campsite. There was a picnic table on her site. The three of us sat there.

I looked at Jody intently. There was briefly a sort of disconnect between my dim memories of her former appearance and that of the woman who was actually sitting across from me at the table. I’ve had this sensation before. It’s both confusing and unnerving. It takes a moment or two to reconcile the present with the past. Two images have to merge, and there is an intense sadness in that. The older image, the image from our youth, has to fade, and that is a small death.

Who did I see? I saw a woman with grey streaks in her hair. I saw a woman who was thinner then I remember, and weathered. She wore glasses, and I don’t think she did so thirty years ago. The smile was the same. Her voice was the same. The eyes were the same: gentle eyes illuminated from within. Her eyes hadn’t grown old.

We sat at the picnic table and spoke. Where do you start a conversation after thirty years? You start with now. Who are we now? It is impossible to bridge the gap. Too much has happened. Too much has changed. Start fresh. Meet again for the very first time. The past still exists, but it doesn’t own us.

Jody had a small bag of grapes. She took the grapes out of the paper bag, and she laid them on the table. She never actually offered them to us. She nudged them in our direction until we ate with her. As she spoke about many things, her hands would push the grapes toward us. She silently invited us to try them.

I don’t remember of what we all spoke. I imagine that we talked about our kids. I’m sure we did that. I know that time went swiftly and the sun was getting low in the sky. The shadows grew long.

Hans called me on my cell. I walked away from Karin and Jody on order to talk to him. In a way it seemed rude, but it also gave Jody and Karin a chance to converse without me. They could talk as two women, two mothers, without a man present. Upon my return, the decision had been made to go out to eat. We decided to seek out a Chinese restaurant.

Buellton has one Chinese restaurant. We sat in a booth. We ordered. We asked a waitress to take a picture of the three of us, as if we needed proof that we really met. Our conversations continued.

Jody asked me if I felt strange being a liberal in Wisconsin. I asked her, “Am I a liberal?” She was under the impression that I was. I responded that, in many cases, I could be seen that way, but in other ways I am not. I don’t agree with abortion. I don’t believe in gun control. The three of us had a long talk about what we believed.

The check came. I reached for it. Jody said, “No, I’ll pay it. You two came so far.” We did. Sometimes it is best to accept a gift graciously. Sometimes it is best to let others make the decisions.

Jody sighed and said, “I’m tired.” She had been on her bike all day. The meal ended, and Karin and I drove Jody back to her campsite. We hugged. We said goodbye.

I thought briefly about maybe meeting Jody the next morning for breakfast. I rejected that idea. A person needs to know when to stop. We had met again. That was enough. It was best to make a clean cut.

A moment in time. A blip on the screen.

Did it all matter?

Yes.

Earnel

July 18th, 2017

North 18th Street is a quiet neighborhood in Milwaukee. If you look to the north, you see Rufus King High School. One block to the south is Capitol Drive. The houses along the block are older, but generally well-maintained. The population is almost entirely black. There was one white guy there, and that was me.

I went up to Ernie’s house and rang the doorbell. Merry, his wife, opened the door to me. She’s a strong, solid lady, with a welcoming smile. Merry greeted me and gave me a hug. Then we went inside the house.

Ernie (Earnel) and Merry have tidy home. It’s full of all the sorts of things that a married couple accumulates in the course of a lifetime together. Merry likes flowers. There are flowers, or pictures of flowers everywhere. The house is clean. Immaculate. The house has that old-school look: some inlaid cabinetry, curved ceilings, solid wood doors. It has character. It has a history.

I saw Ernie as soon as I walked into their living room. He was sitting in a chair, staring at me. There was an empty chair right next to him, so I knew where I was going to sit. I sat down next to Ernie and took a good look at him.

He’s changed. Ernie has lost weight. His arms and legs are almost fleshless. Ernie was never a big man, but he’s shrunken. His hands and fingers are thin and spidery. His hair is longer, and it seems to be much greyer. Ernie doesn’t smile much. He doesn’t laugh. He didn’t while I was there.

I asked Merry what kind of cancer he had. Ernie’s been in chemotherapy for a while. Merry called to her nineteen-year-old granddaughter, and asked her to explain it. Merry said, “Can you tell Frank what your grandfather has? You say it so well.”

The girl and Merry and Ernie told me what was going on. “Ernie has multiple myeloma. It’s a malfunction of the plasma cells in the blood. It’s like the body is fighting an infection that ain’t there. The immune system attacks itself.”

Merry told me about the chemotherapy. She said, “Well, all Ernie’s vitals are better now. When he started he had a viral infection in his GI tract too. They have him doing four courses of the chemo: each course goes every Friday for three weeks, and then a Friday off. So, four months of chemo. Then they will look it all over to see how it’s helped him.”

Merry smiled at Ernie hopefully and said, “This cancer is curable.” Ernie didn’t smile back.

Ernie and I sat in the living room. He talked. I listened. Ernie’s youngest grandchild came to visit with us. Mila is three. She brought Ernie a smoothie to drink. She looked at me and tugged on my beard. The little girl smiled.

Ernie said, “You got yourself a new girlfriend. Don’t be telling your wife now.”

Merry asked me about my beard. She said, “You growing dreadlocks in that thing?”

“It just grows like that.”

Ernie said, “Frank, he just an old hippie.”

“Yeah, that what Hans tells me.”

“He your redneck son.”

“Yeah, he sure is.”

Merry said, “We got your postcards. You wrote about your son. We looked at that and thought, ‘Did he really write that his boy was a redneck? Did he really write that?“. She laughed.

Ernie talked some more.

“Yeah, Frankie, I never thought I’d get sick like this. I mean I know people get cancer, but when your own body be fighting against you. Damn.”

Then he said, “Yeah, Frankie, this sickness it makes me feel lazy. I ain’t never been lazy.”

I replied, “No, you never have.”

I can use a lot of words with Ernie, but “lazy” is not one of them. I have never met a guy who worked harder than Ernie. Ever.

Ernie kept saying, “I’m going to get up soon and start cooking them brats. You going to eat some?”

“Yeah.”

“I got to get up soon and start the grill. My feet swell up. I need to get me my house shoes on first.”

Ernie didn’t cook. His daughter, Tanya, did. Ernie was grumbling about starting the grill and Merry told him, “You ain’t cooked in months. Why you going to do that now? You and Frank go outside and sit.”

We did. We sat in his backyard. Ernie played Bill Withers on the stereo (Ain’t No Sunshine). Then we sat there and listened to Roy Orbison. Some young man next door was having an animated conversation with people I couldn’t see or hear. Ernie ignored him. Mila splashed around in a wading pool. Tanya grilled brats. Merry asked me about our trip across the country.

Eventually, we ate. Merry brought us brats and noodle salad. Ernie ate some. He gave some of his food to the dogs, Tyler and Rocket.

Ernie asked me, “You liked that moonshine I gave you?” Ernie used to bring that stuff up from Mississippi, where he grew up. That shit sneaks up on you. The last time I had moonshine with Ernie, Karin drove me home. I didn’t argue with her either.

“Oh yeah”, I said.

Merry came out and smiled. She said to me, “I’m glad that you are here. Ernie ate more today than he has in a long time. He usually says that the food don’t taste like nothing, and he can barely keep it down.”

I had a sudden memory. Jeanne, Greg Brown’s wife, said the same thing to me years ago. Greg had cancer. He’s gone now.

I had to go. I needed to teach my citizenship class. I talked to Merry. She said that Ernie misses work. He misses driving. I asked her if he would mind having visitors. She smiled and said that he would be okay with that.

I went to the backyard to say goodbye to Ernie. I asked him if I could give him a hug. He was good with that. I held him tight for a minute. I could feel all his bones.

Then he said to Merry, “Go inside and get Frank that glass bottle with the blue writin’ on it.”

She bought out a bottle for me with a clear liquid inside.

“I’ll keep this away from open flames.”

Merry smiled and said, “That would be a good idea.”

She walked me to the street.

Merry told me, “Now you say hi to your wife for me. Tell her I miss her.”

“Okay, I will.“

Then I told her, “You got a great husband.”

She said, ”Oh, he’s okay for now”, and she laughed.

She gave me a hug.

I left.