Who is Tony Shuster and why is he on the cover of your book?

Tony and AlexI have been asked by folks who have seen his generous, hyperbolic quote on the cover of my recently completed novel, Night Lessons: “Who is this Tony Shuster fellow?”

I must confess that Tony’s past is shrouded in mists to me, other than the fact that he has been, and continues to be, a key member of a shady group of golfers who regularly assemble in the dead of night at a public par three golf course in Indio, California to participate in a variant of the “Royal and Ancient” game under the banner of Muni-Madness. Other than that dubious distinction, I can attest that he is otherwise a good judge of literature, a charismatic spirit, and a student of the game and its courses’ architecture. He is a looper, aka a caddie, but not just any caddie. He is a raconteur of sorts laboring beneath a golf bag – although laboring is a misleading word in the case of a fellow who traverses 36 or more holes a day without ever losing good humor or contagious optimism even when his player’s performance often merits nothing of the sort. I am lucky to have enlisted Tony’s enthusiastic support for my book, but even more…to have played a round with him that from my perspective was an extraordinary event.

I once dreamt up a magic sort of fellow – a caddie as a matter of fact – in the very book he plugged for me, but had I met Tony before conjuring up that character, I just might have inserted him into the story instead.

“Magic?” you say. Okay, first a little background: I am a very poor golfer. I possess a futilely explosive swing in which all energy is directed everywhere but the ball. Tony once described my swing as “total commitment” and I must say, it was kind of him to find such an affirmative word. We first played together at Bandon Trails, a fine Crenshaw/Coore design at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort where he loops during the summer months, I think he was mesmerized by the simultaneous viciousness and impotence of my “swing”. Yet unless the roar of air from my lurch at the ball drowned out his snickering, I never heard a note of laughter or a groan of pity at a move that was/is so comically tragic. No, he remained mum. A true professional. Such restraint borders on supernatural, but that is not the magic to which I refer.

I have “played” golf for thirty some years – over a thousand rounds – and in that time I have logged one ace, two eagles, and perhaps a score of birdies. Yeah, that’s twenty. Ouch! You single digit guys can stop laughing. But for what it’s worth (and it’s worth a lot) I do love the game; I’m just…challenged. Do the math: In my case a birdie has come along every six months or so, or so stood the depressing statistic until the day when at Tony’s invitation I met him and his fellow-caddie Alex Simcox at Bandon Dunes.

Having not traveled down to Bandon since way back in the nineties – when it cost only $35 a round for locals, and before David MacLay Kidd’s original dunes had landed in the golfing world’s sights – I was a tad overwhelmed by the present grandeur of the premises. This trip was a lob wedge into the stratosphere above the $24 per round munis I generally play. As I hauled my long-neglected clubs from the car and beat ancient grasses from my soft-spikes, a lump – a manifestation of that inescapable first-tee apprehension – formed in my throat. Perhaps I was out of my league.

I caught up with Tony and Alex at the practice green. Their nonchalance in the face of such a celestial golf environment was unsettling at first. Did they not realize where they worked? They carried themselves like pros, and after watching exactly one of Alex’s practice swings I realized they – he at least – might play like pros as well. Oh boy, I would be attempting to manufacture a golf game under the scrutiny of real players, not my fellow 20-handicappers back in Portland. Maybe I really was in over my head. My pulse quickened. Just before we trekked down a rustic trail to the first tee, Tony came jogging back from the grill-room all smiles. No, he had not had a drink, but he had just met the man himself, Mike Keiser, the visionary singularly responsible for Bandon Dunes’s very existence. Tony was stoked to have made his legendary employer’s acquaintance. My knees started to tremble… I didn’t know magic lay ahead.

I will not bore you with details of the round except for a couple of notable moments. After watching my partners fire astoundingly well-executed drives from the first tee – drives that in the case of Alex resulted in an opening eagle – I skulled a drive into the short reaches of the fairway. My second shot never gained much elevation and appeared to bury itself into the flanks of a dune guarding the green. But the magic of which I speak must have intervened, because as I pushed aside tufts of dune grass in search of my ball, Alex proclaimed that it was up on the green. Impossible! Convinced that in a kind gesture he had tossed a ball up onto the putting surface to spare me humiliation, I checked it out. Incredibly, the ball was mine, and I soon escaped with an improbable par. Some slight-of-hand seemed to be at work. As we headed over to the next tee Tony and Alex’s happy chatter was lost to me in the sound of my tantric breathing. If I could just calm down I might make a game out of it. But then the world started to wobble.

Meniere’s syndrome is a defect of the inner ear that causes severe dizziness and sometimes nausea. Pro golfer, Jason Day is afflicted with the disorder and, if I recall, the affliction had some bearing on Jason’s performance in the third round of the US Open last year at Chamber’s Bay. Walking to the second hole, Meniere laid me low. It is hard to mask one’s frustration at tackling a fantastic course, with two great partners when one’s horizon is pitching like a barge. Enter Mr. Shuster. He distracted me from my trials with facts and fables of Bandon, he produced a Gatorade out of thin air and instructed me in the merits of electrolyte balance and proper hydration, and he demonstrated his amazing backward swing. Lo and behold, I somehow staggered through the front nine with bogies and a couple of pars… reasonable for me on a good day.

Then on the back nine the impossible.

After a poor drive, a good approach and a great putt I walked off a short par four thinking I had made my second par. “No, it was a birdie,” Tony informed me with a genuine grin. I think Tony and Alex were happier than me. In disbelief, I sheepishly returned their fist bumps. A few holes later – a par three – after choosing not to tee the ball, and after reminding myself to hit down which I accomplished at the cost of nearly spraining my wrist, I looked up in mid-grimace to see my ball land on the green within 18 feet of the hole. Not to brag, but it was closer than either of my partners. Funny, the sheepishness had vanished.

Fantastic. A green in regulation is always a victory for me. But the putt was another matter. It had to track directly across a severe slope. Not an easy two-putt… for anybody. Tony, as he recently explained, reads about 70,000 putts a year, and he stepped in to have a look. He never said a word, though. Apparently he deduced from my set-up and my eyes that I had correctly calculated the line that a properly paced putt would have to travel across that fall-line in order to die into the high side of the hole and avoid scurrying endlessly down the slope. But what were the odds of execution?

On the road home that night I stopped for a bite and checked out some of the alarming photos that Tony had posted of me in full-throttle that afternoon. Had the game been a disaster, I might not have found them amusing, and out of sheer humanity I doubt Tony would have shared them. But it had been a good game – a magic round by my reckoning and I was in a magnanimous mood. I laughed at the pics and at myself. Even that absolute terror of a putt across the slope on that par three a couple of hours earlier had fallen resoundingly into the cup for birdie number two. This bird I accepted with a crazy grin without second-thoughts. My wrists may have stung from the sloppy swing, but I returned my pals’ high-fives with gusto.

Two birdies may not be a big deal to some, but on that magical day on Bandon Trails, beneath the spell of golf’s unmatched camaraderie and beguiled by the magic of a scrupulously professional, optimistic caddie… and despite my marginal skills, a rusty game, a serious bout of nerves and uncooperative inner ears, I had bagged two. Walking off that beautiful sandy turf I glowed with satisfaction that I had left nothing on the course. What more can a golfer want?

In a few days I am heading south into the golfing hot-spots of Scottsdale and Palm Springs in hopes of selling a couple of books (you can order one on-line at Amazon or Barnes & Noble) I have been reading Tony’s dispatches regarding Muni-Madness craziness under the lights. From the sound of it, I doubt you can get much farther from Doak and company’s Bandon masterpieces, but I doubt you can have more fun on any course anywhere. Tony is on to something down there, something irresistible. His video posts reveal players with serious skills, but crazy-bad swing or not, I’ll have to jump into the Madness. And perhaps if the magic rears its head again, two-birdie lightning might strike twice.

Some Gumbo’s Chicken/Shrimp Gumbo Recipe

Don's Gumbo 1.19.16So you’ve landed at this site thinking you might find a memorable gumbo recipe rather than a wordy blog. How utterly reasonable.

After two years of leading gumbo-hungry blog-surfers astray, I have decided to give the people of the blogosphere what they want. To wit, this post of my recently proven – and utterly delicious – chicken and shrimp gumbo recipe. Hope it is as satisfying as the words you may also have found here.

Author/chef’s note: If you prefer not to use the shrimp or oysters in your gumbo, raise the quantity of chicken accordingly. If you do not use sliced bacon, you will need to add about 3 tablespoons of bacon fat or vegetable oil at the beginning in which to brown the chicken. This recipe uses okra rather than a roux for thickening. Making the roux adds another step but I believe adds a desirable gravy character. If you choose to use some roux, drop the okra quantity down to 3 cups and add about a half cup of roux where when called for in the recipe. Retain the rest of the roux for additional thickening if desired at the end of the recipe.

2 lbs       Chicken cut into 8 pieces (3 lbs if seafood not used)
1 lb.        Medium size shrimp (shelled) or Raw oysters
½ lb.       Andouille sausage sliced into ¼ inch slices
¼ lb.       Sliced bacon, cottage bacon or smoked ham
3 cups     Okra sliced if fresh, or use frozen as is
3 cups     Chicken broth
2 cups     Diced tomatoes
1 cup       Cooked rice
2 tbsp.    Butter
1             Green bell pepper diced 1/4”
1             Onion medium finely chopped
1             Celery stalk coarsely diced 1/4”
4             Garlic cloves chopped
2 tsp       Basil
1 tsp       Thyme
3 tbsp.    Rum
—-          A hearty dash of your favorite hot sauce or chipotle sauce
—           Salt and pepper to taste

Optional: 1 tbsp. file spice; 1 cup roux; 1 Small Jalapeno pepper or a smoky Hatch pepper thinly sliced.

Using a deep skillet or 4-quart saucepan, cook the bacon strips to desired crispness. Set aside and crumble the bacon strips. Pat the chicken pieces dry and season with salt and pepper. Add a pinch of flour to the chicken pieces and place them in the pan. Brown the chicken, remove from the pan and set aside. Pour off excess fat, retaining about 3 tablespoons in pan.

Add okra, onion and bell pepper and cook on low to medium heat for about 10 minutes – stirring frequently. Next add the tomatoes, chicken broth, chopped bacon (or ham), celery, and the rum. Simmer about 10-15 minutes. Add the chicken and andouille sausage and continue simmering about 40 minutes. During this step add salt, pepper, hot sauce and/or jalapeño to taste.

Carefully remove the chicken from the pan and pull the meat from the bone (discard most of the skin for health) and return chicken meat to the gumbo. Add the shrimp or oysters, the butter and the file spice. If you prefer to include the cooked rice in the gumbo add it now. Continue simmering about 5 minutes and until the shrimp is just cooked. Adjust the liquidity of your gumbo by thickening with the extra roux or thinning with a little beer. Serve hot and fresh…but it tastes even better tomorrow.

Carlsbad Tarantula – Part One

I arrived at the Sentry Fuel ‘n Food Mart early – an island in a maelström of oil field service and potash mining vehicles. The display in the dash of my company truck glowed 5:10 am. It was going to be a hot one, even for mid-July in Carlsbad.

Yesterday’s rain was a memory. Red langbedite and sylvite dust, the essential elements supporting much of the hubbub in this mining district, already hung in the air. Before the day was over I would be destined for another pass through the car wash down on Church Street. It seemed foolish to me that the engineering company for whom I worked would issue its management types spanking white Ford F-150’s in such a pink environment. But I guess they figured it important to maintain a certain sparkly decorum when dealing with the rowdy characters who dig their living from the ancient sea beds of New Mexico’s Permian Basin.

As the troops converged, the crust of yesterday’s mud fell from the undercarriage of their rigs. Pink explosions peppered the warm asphalt of the lot while trucks jockeyed for prime spots at the pumps. For the next twenty minutes or so, a horde of denim- and Carhartt-clad men – and a woman or two – tore like hyenas at the limited supply of ice, assembly line sandwiches, microwave burritos, chimichangas and energy drinks. I watched from a distance. At the risk of sounding superior, time was of a little less value to me than these folk. I enter my hours at my leisure on a Friday afternoon spreadsheet – no time clock or breakneck rush through the Sentry rules my morning ritual.

But still, I had dragged myself out of bed at 4:15 that morning, a claim that probably wouldn’t have counted for much had I intended to hob-knob down at the Blue Coyote that evening after the happy-hour wimps had fled and left the place to the real men and women of this – no joke – salty earth. That crowd has long since adapted to heat, grit, wee-hour waking and the heartless labors of their employment. Of the workers who fell from the crew cabs that morning, some were hungry, exhausted and understandably angry at facing another 105 degree workday, others were sanguine at the prospect of living merely to extract gas, salt, oil or potash from this defiant earth. Clearly, it takes all kinds; and in my way, I was one.

From the periphery of the illumination encompassing the Sentry’s lucrative facility, I watched the crews ebb and flow. National Public Radio’s Steve Inskeep and company murmured in schooled diction from my speakers as last night’s insects still darted in suicidal passion against the searing glass of the parking lot’s sodium vapor lights. From the calm of my cab I barely heard the banter of the workmen as they loaded their coolers, and was unaware of the 300 cubic inch diesel idling silently at my feet. Like me, even the machinery in the employ of the engineering company, is the pampered recipient of disposable corporate cash and regular maintenance.

I usually let the tide recede before taking my place at the Sentry’s coffee nozzle. But that morning it turned out that I would have company. I would have to hustle for once. A green Dodge Ram Crew Cab had lingered too long in the current of darting vehicles. I watched it suspiciously as if it were a wounded animal. Simpson Oilfield Services read the logo across the truck’s flanks. As I regarded the vehicle, the driver’s door popped open and a short, very dark Hispanic man in a reflective vest and green hard hat strained to lower his boots to the asphalt. In a moment the hood was open and he had disappeared into the maw of Simpson’s rig. By the time I returned to my cab with a brimming mug of Sentry’s oily java, the fellow was standing by his truck talking intently into a smart phone.

For an instant we made eye contact. He looked familiar, but I wasn’t certain; since being assigned to Potash Compaction Plant Two five months ago I have seen hundreds of men tripping through their morning routines. The driver of the disabled truck must have found something familiar in me, too, because after barking a few commands to the four fellows sharing his truck, he approached.

I descended from my cloud and prepared to make contact.

“Bud’ty, we needt a handt. I bet you’re a goodt man, heh…” The driver’s voice fell away as if he were shy – as if he were asking an embarrassing question. I realized I had profiled the man incorrectly. His was the characteristic speech of the Apache. The round, handsome face confirmed what I had not perceived from across the lot. I should have known after months in this place, not to judge the Permian people by flesh tone.

“Hey, man I seen your rig up on ‘Paction Two… yeah, we’re just down the roadt at J-19. My guys needt a lift…” The driver was friendly but insistent. He would provide no more detail without prompting. The Apache way.

I was a little apprehensive, not at the prospect of getting involved with this fellow and his crew, but at the fact that I am wedded by routine to NPR’s morning broadcast. Coming to these boys’ rescue would likely put the kibosh on a thoughtful, informative drive into work. “J-19…that’s one of the gas wells down Jitter Creek Road off 180, right?” I asked.

The driver nodded and glanced back at his truck.

“You’re Simpson guys, huh? I hear you fellas do good work.” I flashed a sincere smile. Compliments are rare in these dusty fields, I’ve learned they go a long way. “What’s your name?”

“Ikshu… they call me Icky.” A thin smile flashed across the driver’s broad face. “Alternator dead. We’re screwdt, I’ll get her back on roadt quick, but yeah, you can run my guys up to our job, heh? I’ve got some goodt buff’lo jerky…”

“No pal…you won’t owe me anything, just get their butts over here pronto.” I glanced at my watch as if I gave a shit. “But they’ll have a ride back tonight, right?” I couldn’t bring myself to call him Icky. The driver gave me a thumbs up and hollered at his crew while I collected rolls of drawings from the back seat and stowed them in the bed box. My radio issued a report on a drone strike in Yemen as four men struck out across the gulf between gas field services and project management.

I presented a casual, welcoming face to the four fellows, feigning tolerance as the spotless grey upholstery of my back seat succumbed to the grime of my accidental passengers, and squawking only when it became apparent that all four of the workmen planned on cramming into the back seat: “Dudes, shotgun is wide open. Somebody, c’mon…up front.” I snapped my fingers with Sergeant Bilco urgency.

A flash of panic played across the face of the last man out, an alarmingly thin, freckled Anglo cowboy attempting to wedge himself into the remaining inches of the rear seat. Unlike the other men who each were already wearing their hard hats, he sported a tall cowboy hat. A dark blue hard hat covered in an impressive display of job decals, hung from his right arm. The cowboy had been around, he knew that I knew MSHA regulations require seatbelts for each passenger on a mine site, and he appeared uncomfortable that I would call him on it, but he was clearly more worried about sitting in the leather passenger seat of my uncommonly clean Ford, terrified, I think, that he might have to make small talk with me for 45 minutes in the chilling absence of country music.

I never thought anyone noticed, but it occurred that he had probably seen me keeping my distance from the mob in the Sentry’s pre-dawn lot, and that I had been pegged as boss material: Liberal. Educated. Distant. There may some truth in the characterization, but I am only marginally educated and truly don’t feel superior. Admittedly, I have shied away from Miller-time gatherings at the Last Crossing Roadhouse, and passed up joining in the grab-assing when the break room was too rowdy. I have mastered the ambiguous nod to retreat behind white-collar status. But if I am aloof, it is only out of shyness. After a life of coping with that affliction, one learns when to screw up the façade of confidence, and when to embrace invisibility or savor solitude. Since coming to work here, coffee and the radio on a solo drive into the sunrise each morning east of Carlsbad have currently filled that bill.

Grudgingly, the freckled fellow flung open the passenger door and climbed aboard. He made a show out of adjusting his seatbelt and settled solemnly into the seat as we pulled away – his lunch pail and hard hat cradled in his lap – the cowboy hat still perched on his head. I tried not to intrude but noticed a tattoo peering from beneath the sleeve of his left arm: A rattlesnake coiled around the handle of a bowie-knife. The image startled me from my initial impression of the skinny young man as some sort of Huck Finn.

With a welcoming smile clamped on my face, I glanced over my shoulder to take stock of the three fellows behind me: Two Navajo steelworkers and a Mexican millwright. The Navajos I have worked with are often shy, unlike the Apache or the Zuñi who tend to be inscrutable. These two young men – I’d guess 25 years – were no exception. They nearly blushed, then bowed to examine their cell phones when I jokingly suggested that since there was plenty of room on the seat they didn’t have to sit so close. The third rider cracked up at what I guessed he thought was some homophobic inference in my suggestion.

Instinctively, I suspected faux laughter, and that this fellow was programmed to score points with anyone of authority. Or was he mocking me? He made me more uncomfortable than the mysterious character seated beside me. But I, too, am instinctively programmed: To suspect anyone trying to take my measure. That attitude makes me neurotic, and probably explains the buffer between me and so many of my cohorts in this treacherous world where the measure of a person is critical… where you may have to rely on anyone at any moment for life and limb.

I gathered my breath: Did they want to listen to something other than Morning Edition? Of course not I assured myself, and before they had a chance to reply, I switched the radio to a sure-fire selection: KBIM Country Giant. Bound to cross the cultural divide I presumed. Haven’t seen an Indian or a cowboy yet that didn’t dig country music, but I had my doubts about the patronizing Mexican. I figured he’d act like he liked whatever I dialed in. Toby Keith burst into the cab in mid-song. I tapped the steering wheel with my wedding ring, trying to act like I was moved by the music. Several bars in it became apparent nobody else was similarly touched – no foot-tapping, humming, or lip syncing stirred my passengers. Fuck, I thought, might as well have kept NPR on the air. The Country Giant cued another tune with a guitar-heavy intro. I looked at the dial, had I bumped the knob to Classic Rock? The music sounded pathetically like the Eagles. The skeletal roughneck beside me twisted in discomfort on his seat. Hemorrhoids I guessed. I guessed wrong.

He looked directly at me with an earnest, honest question. He took me by surprise. “Do you like this horse shit?” Turns out the sinewy Huck Finn had a foul mouth, too. “I quit listening to this fucking crap after Waylon died… just saying, boss.”

Boss…did I deserve that? Did he not think I had jumped to a fair share of foolish, arbitrary tunes from my superiors? I wanted to tell the emaciated fellow that he’d probably do better if he abandoned the crack pipe, took up kombucha and kept his god-damned musical opinions to himself. But I feared he might slash my throat…and besides, I agreed with him. I always seasoned my musical palette with a careful selection of country and western, but like him, my tastes in the new sounds from Nashville, or wherever they conjured up this country pop, stopped back with Randy Travis. A broad smile broke across my face despite myself. “You got that right, pal. I usually just listen to the news. Too bad I don’t have satellite radio, I’d put on that XM Real Country station. Good old stuff, 24-7.” I was getting somewhere, now.

“Whatever, man.” Replied the cowboy, dropping the useless subject to watch as we passed a convoy of mobile frac sand pumps.

“You don’t know shit about music, Justin.” To my surprise, a voice from the rear seat scolded the cowboy. I raised my eyes to the mirror. It was the Mexican. “Waylon was good, but ain’t you heard Rodney Crowell, Hank Jr. or Junior Brown?”

I was secretly impressed that the Mexican wasn’t afraid to call the sullen fellow in the seat beside me on his rude musical opinion. Then again, maybe he was just trying to ingratiate himself with me? Either way it took some balls, but who knew. Lord knows what debts the cowboy might already have owed his antagonist. As the realization sunk in that the relationships of these men extended far beneath the surface, the cowboy replied to the criticism by hoisting an arm above the seat and directing a bony middle finger toward his crew mate. He never took his eyes off the frac pumps. Never uttered a word. I depressed the accelerator, the sooner I got this volatile crew to the gas fields the better.

Several silent minutes passed. Somewhere along the line I once learned that a good host knows how to keep the conversation flowing. I should have known by then that a sleep-deprived crew still awaiting the effects of their first coffee may not be all that keen on small talk. But I am a slow learner and I took another stab at rallying this crew into happy chatter. “How is J-19 coming along. I see you guys erected a surge tank a few days back. Is she on-line?”

I turned back to my passengers to make eye contact with the Navajos in hopes of drawing them in. One of the shy duo raised his eyes to mine and shrugged: “Lot of muddy shit, man…” He dropped his attention back to his phone. It appeared he might be looking at photos of his children or his brother’s children or their children. His five word reply was clearly his last word on the subject. The Navajo way.

The Mexican heard the brief exchange and was eager to offer a bit more detail. He reminded me then of a helpful, bright Border Collie, and I mean that in a good way. My opinion of the fellow was already changing favorably. “Oh man… Chee is right on. That mother’s got an appetite for mud. We’ve been pumping shit down her throat for 2 weeks, ain’t got nothing back but crap gas. That tank you saw…empty. A waste of money.” A full set of bright teeth broke from a smiling mouth, “But I coulda’ told ‘em…this hombre is bad luck. She’s my thirteenth well. That figures, huh?”

“Sure does…if you’re superstitious.” I smiled at a real exchange. “Thirteenth. How many years would that be?”

The Mexican stopped to count out some math. “Graduated from high school here in Carlsbad – a Caveman – in 2002. Started right in on the fields, with Simpson. Wow, thirteen years, same outfit. Double bad luck. I was hoping for a good auto mechanics job or junior for a NASCAR crew, but Simpson was hiring. And crap man, you just don’t walk into NASCAR. Good thing we’ve got work here. Got lots of oil in the basin.”

The cowboy perked back up. “Lots of fucking salt water you mean, Trujillo. That’s ‘bout all I ever seen.” He turned in my direction to reply to Trujillo’s comment. I imagined I smelled a trace of alcohol. So did Mr. Trujillo.

“Jesus, Justin. I hope there’s no piss test today. You’d better keep your ass out of the harness today, dude. Damn it, man.” Trujillo’s voice had shed its playfulness, the Collie in him turned Shepard. “Man, you know the Coyote is off-limits after ten. Ain’t you ever heard of sleep?”

“Piss off. The Coyote is fucking home… and I’ve been coming home safe since I was fifteen. I been closing her down since my first fake ID. Had my first fight, my first fuck – you name it – out in Coyote’s parking lot.”

The two Navajos began laughing softly, stirred by caffeine and the mention of fucking. They murmured in their tongue and a mixture of American slang euphemisms for sex. From the corner of the mirror I recognized their childlike comradery. The themes were universal: Someone got lucky. Someone is jealous. Someone is skeptical. Someone has passed gas. Their laughter, although restrained by a persistent 200 year-old cultural divide, rose in volume. An innocence clung to these young men. Wide awake now, they put their phones away and punched each other in the shoulders congenially. Suddenly it was hard to imagine them tumbling from my pickup in 30 minutes and strapping on fall protection harnesses and taking to the harrowing heights of steel work above J-19.

Then, as if a breeze purged the car of all antagonism and the smell of Sentry breakfast sandwiches, the mood changed. Justin flipped open his smart phone, and without visible means Trujillo knew exactly what the cowboy was seeking. “Don’t tell me you’re still drooling over them Glass-Packs down at Napa Auto. Dude, I told you: Luppy’s on highway 260 in Artesia, he’s you’re man. Save you plenty.”

Justin’s posture improved – pleased that Trujillo still recalled their conversation about mufflers during lunch down in the motor control center last Thursday. That conversation evidently covered a lot of automotive ground and left Justin with the impression that Trujillo sincerely shared his love for Chevrolets. His classic ’78 Camaro deserved the best. “Oh yeah, your cousin works there, right?”

An ethnic slur hovered in the air, but Trujillo knew Justin was too grounded in the blood of this working town to buy into a stupid stereotype. He realized Justin might be a red-neck, and at times a drunken asshole, but paid real attention to anyone or anything worth listening to. Trujillo snickered, “Yeah, my cousin…Ramon. Look him up. If his shit is good enough for low-riders and Pachucos, it’s good enough for you.”

The exchange jumped abruptly from automotive accessories to family as Justin popped up a photo on his phone and passed the device over the seat to Trujillo. “Gloria snapped this one yesterday.”

His chatty compadre smiled at the picture of a little girl. “Man, she is looking sweet…how old is Felina now, three?”

“Yeah, three. Fucking hard to believe…her birthday is on Saturday.”

“Wow, man…and another month she gets a new brother, heh?” Trujillo was apparently up to speed on his workmate’s family milestones. “How’s Gloria doin’ carrying Justin junior around in this heat?”

“Ready to pop, dude. She and Felina ‘bout spend the day in the wading pool.”

If there was any friction between Justin and Gloria from his late nights at the Coyote, it wasn’t discernable. From his reflection in the passenger’s window I saw the young father’s smile beaming like a ghost as Trujillo passed the phone bearing the photograph of his daughter over to the Navajos. They approved. In the day ahead they knew they would have to rely on each other for safety and support in a world of crushing steel fabrications, dizzy perches and incinerating electric current. Approval was a vital element, like good steel in a set of carabiners.

I turned back to the road. Soon the spindle steel of J-19 rose above the horizon. 5:45 AM, I knew they would make it to this morning’s safety talk with a couple of minutes to spare. The last time I looked at my passengers before we arrived at the dusty bivouac area outside the gas well’s security shed, a contest to determine who owned bragging rights to the best lunch entre was underway. From what I gathered, Trujillo’s freezer bag of home-made Buffalo wings was edging out the other contestants’ Baja Lunch Wraps, Big ‘n Beefy Microwave Burritos and Peking Cup-o-Noodles.

These relatively young, relatively tough men in black denim, sinister tats, black silk skull caps, tight braids and bandanas might have appeared threatening to an outsider, but as they concluded the lunch pail contest and bartered coveted candy bars for plugs of Skoal, they still acted like 4th graders. The bonds of survival are forged in the most unlikely of ways.

In the last few minutes before I dropped them off, the foursome fell silent. As sunrise’s shadows stretched across the laydown yard adjacent to J-19, they gathered themselves to wrestle with work and survival in this unforgiving environment. Their entire culture, or at least their audacious demeanor, was an adaptation to these rigors. But as their steel toes met the drifting red dust, a solemnity overcame them: caveman, cowboy and Indians. They could just as well have been trudging off to work on Mars. I lingered to watch Trujillo, Justin and the Navajo twins approach the shack housing the time clock. The little structure reminded me of the shrines that spring up unexpectedly along roads in Mexico. But there were no flowers, no rosaries, no holy water or photos of the departed, just the canary yellow and hot pink of news bulletins from MSHA and the contractor’s HR officer.

Before the fellows got out of ear shot, I rolled down my window and hollered at Justin. He turned to face me, clearly hoping that we might never meet again. I tapped my hand to my head, and he instantly realized his error. In a flash he yanked the cowboy hat from his skull and replaced it with his hard hat. If MSHA had been in a pissy mood, Justin knew he could have been fined or worse. Despite himself, I could see the glint of a smile as he acknowledged that, for the moment, I had his back.

Without notice, the ear-splitting squeal of a 150 ton crane’s corroded bogies shattered the din hovering about J-19. I considered a prayer for deliverance of my accidental passengers as the beast crawled into position. Justin tamped his hat down tight and he turned to face the monster…

continued in Carlsbad Tarantula – Part 2, appearing in Some Gumbo in the weeks ahead. copyright, Don Anslow, 2016

Night Lessons Released

NightLessons Final Front CoverWell folks, it has been a long time coming…Night Lessons, the novel that has been in the works and/or spinning around in my head for some time, has finally been released as an eBook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords. It will soon be available as a print book on Amazon for your good old-fashioned page turning pleasure. Before uttering one more word of promotion, I must mention the contribution of my friend and colleague, Joan Pinkert, and my editor at Lucky Bat Books, Louisa Swann. Without their immense assistance I might never have gotten this project off the ground.

I am more than happy to report that the patience and good humor of my wife, Shara, even after the sixth edit and the umpteenth read-through, remains intact.

I have provided links to the booksellers from whom you may purchase a copy. You will find these booksellers’ links under the heading, My Web Links in the left column of the home page of this blog. In addition, I have recently created a website: http://www.donanslow.com and a Facebook page: donanslowauthor where you may read snippets from Night Lessons or other books currently in progress. The website, which will go live in early February will also provide the opportunity to listen to audio clips.

Night Lessons is on the surface a golf story, but it is much more: Engulfed by a locust storm along a remote Texas highway, two-bit gambler Hank Schwain and his son Rama seek relief at a golf course hidden deep in an arroyo of Mesquite Creek. Carlos Taddio, a ghostly greens keeper has foreseen their arrival and returns to Mesquite from the desert where he has lived for years since witnessing the deaths of two children on the mysterious 16th green. He labors under an impossible score that only Rama can help him settle.

In an enchanted midnight encounter Carlos discovers Rama possesses an amazing gift: a magic granted by the lost children’s spirits that elevates the aspirations – the games – of everyone he encounters…with one tragic exception. From that night, Rama, Hank and a cast of memorable characters are swept into a far greater game than golf. Rama becomes a caddie – a sensation – but as his celebrity grows, Hank, in a greedy rush to profit from his son’s magic, plunges towards disaster when he collides with a desperate golf hustler who also seeks to exploit Rama’s incredible gift.

I offer Night Lessons with a nod to the truly great authors of golf fiction, and with the sports writer’s axiom optimistically in mind: “the smaller the ball the better the game’s literature.”

Fulton Coyote

SF Path

The flowers were waiting.
They had always been there, but
I was just late,
having neglected my parents’ resting place so long.
Others’ blooms, cut from surging stems
– dying in their own right –
had always played across those fields of memory,
colors to brighten the mood,
to contrast the sullen stones
of the cemetery.
Yet on those damp slopes of memorial flowers
I hadn’t laid a single petal.

Honor comes awkwardly from me.
I clipped the insulting years away
to reveal the granite text,
a brother’s enduring epitaph.
Rain pooled in the letters’ etched depth
and I left fretting
for the sun…
for California, for San Francisco,
for pastel streets west of Divisidero,
for a walk in the great park.
The gate – golden indeed – an entry to dreams
and like the that sodden cemetery,
a place of memories.

Eucalyptus, sequoia and rhododendron waited,
welcoming cover for vagrants and runners,
for tai chi troopers and qi gongers,
for bashful musicians,
for things still wild.
And for believers clinging through disdainful time
like the Farallon’s lonely horn,
through the fog of forgetfulness
to a fragile memory:
A summer of festivals and foolish children (some said)…
a season of love.
Not true love (some said),
merely fantasy conjured in youth, encouraged by circumstance
and nurtured within the park’s tarmac boundary.
But close enough
in that season of legends.
True enough to inspire hope,
fraternity against madness,
and courage to sling joy against a warring giant.
Magic enough to redirect our souls.

Fulton street buzzed ahead,
a new century’s traffic against the whispers
of ancient gatherings from the park.
I walked south along 44th avenue,
a few cautious steps through the rush
to the far curb, the sidewalk
marking the park’s northern perimeter.
I paused…
from within the intrigue of its kaleidoscopic flora
and its darkest thickets
I thought I smelled incense
aloft on salty wisps from beyond the great highway.
Buoyancy sufficient to carry the holy scent
and me…
Sensations sufficient
to uncork a froth of recollection.

They came back, as I had hoped,
and always hoped upon my return,
the foolish balloons, the prayer flags,
the sweet kiss of mysterious herbs,
the savage Mexican weed,
the ominous anticipation of insanity,
the consuming vibe of adventurous, simple music
and what passed for higher consciousness.
Lost out in the wheeling sky,
had sung young Crosby, accurately,
when silver sun
broke through secret stands
of Monterrey Cyprus.

Be-ins!
How could I not recall?
How could one forget or ignore those feelings,
even if they were only the bliss of youth,
of a fortunate generation
serendipitously maturing
in sync with technological and cultural novae.
A dream?
A trick of the light?
A cosmic coincidence?
From our perspective the solar and lunar discs
appear of precise diameter
to create the appalling eclipse,
the glorious corona.
By dream, trick or irony
our three grandest spheres
have found a far-fetched relationship
grounded in the mightiest reality.
Incomprehensibly beautiful.
An illusion…
the ultimate trick of light
but don’t question such serendipity,
when irony appears to reign.

I faced the park,
its shadows lapping across Fulton’s sidewalk and my feet.
Could I disentangle the joy of days
once in the thrall of a happier order
from the ecstasy of being seventeen?
Or the aimless kid traveled from a cold, heartless state,
who once prowled these grounds
in blind wonder,
from the man who fathered
brilliant children – one, a woman now –
living in a sparkling studio
a block from the very heart of
his dreams?

The polo grounds were a short stroll ahead
along enchanting trails.
A shuffle through eucalyptus straw
beneath the horned owl’s invisible nest,
     (I heard him last night,
     A one-note dialog with the distant fog-horn)
past the buffalo paddock,
beyond the fly casting ponds
and up the azalea berm.
I stepped eagerly forward,
the ghosts would be waiting out on the ground’s green expanse.
A solitary step…then a rude stop.
Thoughts of lost youth dissolved,
displaced in an instant.
At my feet,
on the park’s very fringe
where timeless sands spill
from ice plant scrub onto Fulton’s southern sidewalk,
lay a coyote.

Recent accounts in the Examiner
told of these creatures’ tenacious cling
to survival, prospering in the park’s wild reaches.
I touched a cautious finger to the animal’s shoulder,
he was dead.
Still warm…still supple.
Coyote have adapted well to the city, I read,
to gentrification, to bitter coffee roasters,
to rent control and to Google busses.
This poor fellow had not…
I could relate.

I imagined the coyote
venturing from the park earlier that morning,
even as I ground beans for my daughter’s coffee.
He had replaced stealth for vulnerability
at the thought of a house cat
or domestic prey wandering unaware
as first light reflected
from bright stucco townhouses
along outer Richmond’s spotless avenues.
A stone’s throw from his sheltering park
the sly silver, grey and golden animal
perished…
under the wheels of an early commuter
racing to beat the rush
up on Persidio Boulevard.

Looking up at the waking city
no consolation seemed imminent.
No magic music would drift from the park
on this morning…no incense.
There would be no words
unless I spoke them,
and as I say, honor comes awkwardly from me.
I hoped such a splendid city could do something.
I could only mutter a halting prayer,
and vow to write these words for you
then leave the unfortunate critter
to Vector Control.

Fulton’s growing turbulence
fell behind as I shuffled into the
morning shadows.
The great owl uttered his final call for the night,
the last word on the subject.
I tried to return to my hippie reverie,
along the stations of that
storied summer’s cross.
If I stepped lively, I would make it to the panhandle
and a cappuccino up on Haight street.
If I was lucky, echoes
of Cippolina’s quicksilver tremolo
might still ring
through the mystical park.

Soon enough, I would return to Oregon,
and practical matters…survival.
Coping with what seemed sometimes
a spiritless population,
I wondered often, was it just me?
Self-indulgence, of course,
but it wasn’t always apparent
that people still cared
or remembered…
Yet the cemetery’s were full of flowers,
that must count for something.
Such judgment would never be mine,
I hadn’t laid a single petal.

The rush of internal combustion
plagued the coastal atmosphere.
The traffic along 44th and Fulton
still consumed the roar of breakers
crashing beyond the Great Highway.
As I emerged from the park
I remembered the coyote
and, an insensitive fool, thought I would take its photo.
     Incongruous coyote corpse
     Found on bustling city sidewalk…
Journalistic instinct perhaps –
a scoop, a trophy, a curiosity –
but in the face of my vanity, the coyote was gone.
To my delight…my embarrassment,
it had been replaced
with a generous brimming bouquet.
Tiger lilies and brilliant tulips!
I looked to the west, down Fulton
to the sea…the sidewalk was vacant.
And to the east
as far as geography permitted,
no flower-bearing figure hurried into obscurity.

I put the camera away
and raised my face
to outer Richmond’s blinding turquoise,
lemon, salmon and lime stuccos.
There, alone on 44th and Fulton,
flowers at my feet,
the surging city smiled back
with bright pastel eyes…
a new season of love.

           Don Anslow, 2/5/2015

Roughing It, Too

DSC00139What is. . .
the star that guides
the scribe’s broken course
from inspiration’s fertile folds,
where visions in perfect phrases fly
generously off the flint of imagination
to the fearfully empty place
where his Huck Finn lingers. . .
abandoned.

And whose is. . .
the pen that plots
a man’s hopeful ascent
from shivering in warm company
to striding against gales of defeat
that rage yet through Aurora’s ruin. . .
the same rocky terrain
that Twain tested,
and by his own reckoning
failed.

Esmeralda,
there’s fortune
in your rugged place…
just underfoot they say.

Soon, the blinding stars
will rise above your barren slopes
and another writer
will pull on working clothes
and mine for words. . .
again.

Don Anslow, 11/13/14

Yes-No Neon – Part 1

IMG_2776The clerk at the Edgefield Motor Suites was trying to be patient. I leaned across the counter to focus on his computer screen, laboring to be polite. After half a century of lodging in all manner of motel, tourist court, travelers rest and motor inn, I was trying to maintain an unblemished record of civility with the cast of no-dozed, detached, curry scented but generally honest characters who have played host to my road-weary self on nights from Halifax to Huachuca. But this encounter challenged my decorum.

I fancy myself an ideal, road-tested motel patron. I sprint to the parking lot to recall my license plate number when demanded. I don’t pester the bored night man for blankets when I know if I don’t I will be sorry. And back in the land-line days, I was always first to point out any phone charges that I had accrued. But on this morning, after only nibbling on the breakfast buffet of cold cereal, boiled eggs, mini-donuts and mealy apples the management had laid out for its ‘honored guests’, my string was about to break.

“No, no. One hundred thirty-five dollars can not be right,” I declared with certainty. “It was eighty-nine bucks, before my AARP discount.” I reached for my wallet to extract proof of my advanced age, and to seal the deal, but as I did, the computer screen and the clerk’s printer came to life.

“So sorry sir, we are very rigorous about our accounting.” He yanked a document from the printer and slid it across the counter. “Please review the list of charges carefully. I’ll answer any questions…”

I blew. “List? How can there be a list?” I counted off what was surely was the obvious: “Room rate, less discount, plus taxes: ninety-two fifty. That’s hardly a list.”

The congenial mask fell from the fellow’s face the way the Rose Queen’s smile collapses after her float takes it final turn from Colorado Boulevard. He hardly uttered a word in response to my outburst. With the authority of the entire hospitality industry behind him, he dropped his forefinger to the printout and tapped the list of ‘extras’.

“Snacks,” he proclaimed.

“Snacks, hell. I never had a snack…not here. They’re too damned expensive. I know. I checked.”

The clerk raised his eyes imperceptibly.

I don’t think I was born yesterday, but sometimes I have my doubts. The nature of my work and my tastes in travel generally take me to destinations beyond the reach of most state-of-the-art lodging. This unfamiliarity left me blind to the depths technology had dipped in order to plunk an irresistible purchasing opportunity right under the nose of a hungry, vulnerable traveler. This should have been no revelation, we have all long-ago learned that one can access pay-per-view films with a click of the remote, and rack up endless bills. I am used to that, but I was unaware of the new snare hotel merchandising services had rigged for me. I recalled the tidy display of salted cashews, chocolates, espresso biscotti and other delights that occupied a crucially unavoidable space on my ‘desk’. And I recalled the prices.

“Seven fifty for a dinky can of peanuts. Are you kidding me…six bucks for junior mints? Forget about it.”

It was true. The goodies were far too steep. I could have strolled one block to a 7-11 and saved three bucks a pop. Like I said, I checked them all. My wife, who knows a few things about nutrition, has imprinted within me an involuntary reflex to read all ingredient labels. That evening I had stood before the AutoSnack-Rack, and scrutinized every item’s label. So I was well aware of the snacks’ daunting chemical complexities as well as the prices, but I never so much as broke a seal on a single Cappuccino Bon-Bon. Yet there they were, Bon-Bons and all, recorded on my bill and charged to my total.

“No, I never ate any of this crap.” My wife would have been proud, but the ascending volume in my voice gave the clerk a different view. I don’t know for sure, but I sensed his finger searching beneath the counter for the ‘Clerk Support’ button. Yet no beefy fellow in an Edgefield blazer ever arrived. It wasn’t necessary.

“Sir, you bought the snacks.”

I looked at him incredulously, but before another word could escape my lips, the clerk informed me of my error – of my naiveté – in a new world of load-cell purchasing technology. “You do not need to consume them to purchase them.” He looked at me with pity. “It’s no different than any store.” He pushed a pre-printed sheet explaining the operations and customer obligations pursuant to the AutoSnack-Rack systems. His logic escaped me, but I was comforted to realize I was not the first Luddite to be ensnared by the Rack. He continued with my enlightenment: “When you pick up an item you have 45 seconds to return it to the rack or the load cell confirms the item’s removal and records it as a purchase.”

Before I could raise further objection in the face of oppressive technology, he lowered the boom. “The rules are clearly marked on the rack. And they are described in your Rental Agreement.”

What could I say? I didn’t realize I had a Rental Agreement other than to refrain from stealing the linen or chasing the maids, and to get the hell out at 11:00am. But a full sheet of 5-point type on the back of my sign-in document testified otherwise. It was enough for me to throw up my hands in defeat. I suppressed a few select oaths and tossed down my credit card. I had nearly exited when I realized this obligation cuts both ways, and I returned to the desk with a determination the clerk could not challenge.

“If I bought ‘em, then let’s have ‘em.” I pulled the bill from my pocket and circled the extras list. “I’ll wait right here.”

Perhaps the clerk was irritated that he couldn’t slip upstairs to my room and claim the goodies before the maids arrived to make the bed and reset the Snack-Rack’s computer, but he never let on. He abandoned his post and his attitude long enough to return with a plastic sack of my accidental purchases. It was with some satisfaction – albeit costly – that I carefully checked his delivery against my inventory and stepped out into the clear southern Oregon morning. I still had about 700 miles to go to catch up with my brother in-law in Las Vegas. Things weren’t so bad, I thought. The ride to Sin City might be a little more tolerable with a bag of over-priced munchies to see me across the desolate stretches.

In a moment I was driving down motel row and all was forgotten. Despite the clerk or his snack trap, it would take a lot more than this blunder to shake my love affair with motels. My eyes darted involuntarily from motel sign to motel sign, utterly unnecessarily seeking an illuminated YES in the bright morning.

It is not that I am a cowering sycophant, but I recoil from the word NO. I don’t like to say it, hear it, and worse, I loathe the sight of it, especially when flashing, flickering or glaring in neon. A shrink, if he bothered to dip into the embarrassing depths of my psyche, would quickly recognize the red flags of a “complex” common in folks without a stable childhood home: aloofness, inability to commit, fear of denial or its sinister twin craving for approval. And he would be right. The root of my issues, my desire for YES – for blind acceptance – in the words of one particularly astute professional of the shrunken persuasion, “flashes like a neon sign declaring ‘gypsy.’” Well they sure got the neon part right.

They weren’t far off on the gypsy issue either.

My father was a severely disabled, indomitable veteran of WWII. For the better part of my childhood he wasn’t employed, but he was never despondent. Before the war he had been a bit of a hobo and a consummate storyteller. After his war came to a horrific end, and what wounds would heal healed, he picked up the pieces and resumed his rambling nature when his wife’s patience and his children’s schooling permitted. And sometimes not.

Caught up in dad’s restless nature, and the lure of an expanding interstate highway system, my family never stayed put for long. We children rarely saw the school year come and go from the same classroom. Our house always was, it seemed, in flux, and our belongings spent inordinate amounts of time in the guts green Mayflower vans barreling between Philly, LA, Nashville and Utah, or idling in the lot of a Howard-Johnson’s awaiting further instruction. Okay, that is a slight exaggeration, but between frequent moves and summer-long treks to dad’s home turf in the Maritimes of Canada, or to my mother’s people in Philadelphia, home for a large portion of my formative years truly was where our Ranch Wagon finally stopped for the night. In my father’s world, that choice was never easy. The decision was governed by a tedious vetting process involving cost, safety, accessibility, intuition, complex racial and social issues, and, of course, the whim of the neon vacancy sign.

img_2888-e1411448994350For a crucial spell in the fifties and sixties before lodging supply caught up with the demands of mobile ex-GI’s and their kin – before 8’s, 6’s, Quintas, Qualities and Comforts thrust their blazing standards into the threatening night skies – there was no certainty for the motorist in finding a bed. The tired family peering at the lights of an approaching town held their breaths in hopes that lodging would be revealed. With luck, the welcoming lights of a motor court emerged from the dark. As sure as flowers, in competition for insects’ attention, evolved intricate floral designs, so, too, did motel owners devise elaborate neon structures to captivate the sleepy traveler. Ever more competitive lists of amenities were shoehorned into the signs, testing the skill of designers and neon craftsmen.

Nowadays, a brand is sufficient to sway a motorist’s decision, but back in the glory days of the blue highways, the days my motel gestalt was forged, copy was king – lurid neon text: Air Conditioned, Free TV, Color TV, Steam Heat, AAA, Pets Welcome, No Pets, No Smoking, Smoking, Kitchenettes, Free Coffee, Heated Pool, Clean Bathrooms, Christian, No Coloreds..and of course, the kicker, the simple binary report of the facility’s availability. YES. NO.

To a weary family, bickering under the ravages of low blood sugar and lack of REM sleep, the report was crucial. Thumbs up promised relief. Thumbs down condemned them to fatigue and anxiety out on the dark, serpentine two-lanes, or on the main drags of remote, inhospitable towns whose police prowled the streets in hopes of picking off out-of-towners who might pay up on-the-spot rather than test the humor of a cranky traffic court judge in the wee hours.

YES. NO offered no grey area. To a sensitive youngster as was I, it seemed a harsh existential judgment that likely contributed to a life of pesky mood disorders (and the vindication of my shrink’s neon sign diagnosis). But to keep this in perspective, the signs are an obvious convenience and have saved many folk from squandering valuable time and effort on useless room shopping. History might have been written far differently if Joseph had been directed by a simple sign reading YES, to a decent room a few miles up the road from Bethlehem. Maybe it’s just as well. It is a bit of a stretch getting one’s imagination around the image of angels, wise men and camels parading up the hall of a cozy inn, than it is to picture them gathered beside a rustic manger.

Biblical considerations aside, I recall the keen anticipation of settling into a comfortable motel room – the chance to pull the ‘sanitized for your protection’ paper strip from the toilet seat, to slide into thin, Tide-scented sheets, to watch local TV hosts guffaw their way through the heavily censored evening movie, to eat Dinty Moore canned stew warmed over a hot plate, and with luck, to writhe with pleasure at the tips of a quarter’s worth of Magic Fingers.

Unfortunately, the promise of a room and an end to the tedious bladder bending hours on the road, did not similarly affect my father or his finely tuned frugality sensors. To him the YES could be ignored if displayed on a sign that indicated AAA approval (too expensive by his measure) or free color TV – also a costly extravagance. Pools, to my dad’s reckoning, were a significant strike against a motel’s surviving his cut, and a bitter pill for his children to accept – especially in August. Although he occasionally relented, and we boys were permitted to cavort in our skivvies after respectably attired children had yielded the pool for the evening.

My father, who suffered the loss of both arms to a land mine a dozen or so years earlier, often ambled out to these infrequent family gatherings by the chlorinated waters, a stout motel-issue tumbler of ginger ale and Old Granddad clamped in his hook. I never saw him swim, but he waded in to his knees and reveled in the extravagant comforts he had grudgingly approved. My mother might dangle a foot or two in the water but generally surveyed the scene for potential dangers when dad’s damaged eyes could not. Thanks to her, even though traveling without reservations or Yelp or a Mobile Guide to provide assistance, things usually worked out okay. But there were close calls when we passed up one too many rooms, a fact due largely to my parent’s brutal selection process.

In their system a motel displaying YES, and having survived the initial AAA/Color TV/Pool/Racial cut, was then subject to inspection by my mother. After some mumbling with my father, that in the confines of a Ford Ranch Wagon somehow escaped the comprehension of my brothers and I but was presumably a confidential review of today’s budget, she would disappear into the office, leaving us in the hush of anticipation.

We watched the pantomime of her body language as she bargained with the clerk. With luck, he would hand her a set of keys. This was only the beginning; she would then make a personal inspection of the proposed room. Sometimes she would review several. As she came and went between the office and the prospective rooms she often passed the car, but I never recall her letting an expression of hope – even an inkling as to the room’s suitability – slip from her determined face. Then, as until she drew her very last breath at St. Peters office door, she held her cards tightly.

* * *

It was a gloomy moment when we saw Mom pass the keys back across the counter and turn to go. She would climb back aboard issuing only the most cryptic justification for her rejection, then throw the car back into gear. My father, no matter how badly he might have had to pee, never challenged her judgment. To this day I can not fathom what imperfection might have triggered her rejection of what from the car appeared to be perfectly acceptable accommodations for the night. I suspect, however, that some of the bathrooms might have been equipped with rubber machines.

Suffering vast disappointment, we would swing through the parking lot in silence; past the parked cars of guests who had either more money, less taste, or a modicum of common sense. Wise, comfortably settled people peeked from the drapes in pity at the lights of the station wagon pulling eastbound back onto highway 40 in the dead of night. From behind their curtains they, like quivering townspeople watching two gunfighters squaring off in High-Noon, must have known the misery that lay dead ahead. They must have been aware that there wasn’t another chance at a motel for 80 miles of winding, god-awful highway.

In defense of my departed parents, I must confess that these horrific nights were an exception. And as uncomfortable as it must have been for them to ride out into what singer, John Koonce called, ‘The Octane Twilight’, they never grumbled or quarreled, and never reassessed their selection criteria, even if we habitually landed past dinner-time and the Honeymooners. We traveled in a bubble, a kind of grace generated by the whir of recaps on asphalt. Whatever it was, it seemed they saved their disagreements for home. Even though there was an increasing chance that the next town could leave us room less – homeless – and at the mercy of the drastic measures my ex-hobo father readily enumerated, such as waking the local priest, sleeping in a church, curling up in a post office, checking into jail, or bedding down in an emergency room lobby. They all seemed like reasonable but frightening possibilities to me – a far, dreadful cry from those hundreds of blissful evenings when in lowly American motel rooms, our family came together like nowhere else on earth…

Steven Amick – Three Poems from Neskowin

Steven Poem Pix

Occasionally the coast of Oregon offers up a perfect day…

at least a perfect day for us naked apes. We recently spent such a day lolling on the shore at Neskowin, Oregon with Martha and her husband Steven. Steven has scribed out a living as a journalist and is currently wrestling with his first novel; but first and foremost Steven is a storyteller. He claims a direct lineage to the originators of the term “coach potato”, a casual relationship with the Bigfoot impersonator behind the oh-so-famous striding Sasquatch image, and the recipient – or was it instigator – of a French kiss from/with Janis Joplin backstage at the original Fillmore auditorium.

There are no credible reasons to deny such claims from as original and uniquely experienced a fellow as Steven. But curiously, he is by his own admission a Luddite when it comes to technology, and regards this blog and blogs in general with weary tolerance – which is a shame because he has some killer tales that need to get to the outer side of his creative noggin. Luckily, after the afternoon together at Neskowin, blathering on about writing, we eventually committed a few lines to our respective projects, and when asked if he would contribute some of his work to Friends’ Folly in Some Gumbo, Steven agreed.

No, I didn’t scoop the Joplin story but did receive a damp, salty sheet of notebook paper from Mr. Amick with the following three poems…for which I am grateful.   DA


 

Beach Flash

I feel my blood-connection

to the Pacific Sea

 

Electric salt-surf serum

rushing into me

 

Moonlight dancing essence

flashing phosphorescence

 

Standing on the shore

feeling so much more

than in the city

            – Steven Amick

 

 

Hey Baby

One of three virgins

slid from the library steps

and winked at me

while biting her pen

          – Steven Amick

 

 

Ahhh…

There is nothing like the bliss

of a piss

not quite too late

            – Steven Amick

Enough Is Enough – Part 1

JFK EnoughGaia – An intriguing concept in which the planet is seen as an organism capable of healing itself.

In the opening months of 1964, the world and our culture was still bleeding from a horrible wound inflicted in Dallas, Texas just a couple of months before. The planet had gone numb after this country’s earnest young president’s murder, but in a Gaia-like process, just when we needed it most, the human spirit raised a new and healing sound from the most unlikely locale – a hard, seaport town in Northwestern England. When the sound from Liverpool arrived on the nation’s radios and in its record stores, young folks went crazy. Out in southern California, I went crazy, too.

Discs

The Mersey Beat, the English Sound, the Big Beat
the PR agents for VeeJay, Capital, Kapp, Epic, Mercury and a half dozen other record companies searched for a tag to identify the musical nova blazing across the Atlantic. The career copywriters who also penned promo materials for their pop contemporaries, stalwarts like Vic Damone, Jack Jones or Al Martino never got it quite right. The revolutionary new music arriving from Britain didn’t necessarily feature any bigger beat than drummers like Elvis’s DJ Fontana, or Haley’s Dick Richards had laid down in Rock n’ Roll’s powerful past. Ringo Starr, the timekeeper for the spectacular musical sensation at the heart of the British Invasion, was substantial, subtle and always in the pocket, and could ride a cymbal like a run-away jet. His predecessor, Pete Best was a far bigger beater, as was Dave Clark of the self-named quintet who gave the Beatles a run for their money in the opening salvos of the invasion.

What was big, was the explosive spirit in the music Gaia and those boys had given us. It was beyond description by wordsmiths hunkered over their Royals out in New York or Philadelphia. It was beyond drumming technique, or chords, riffs and fills…it was magic. It was the future. All I knew was that I couldn’t get enough.

The explosion’s glorious reverberations reached transistors in every bedroom, school bus, drive-in restaurant, and make-out spot across the country. At first we pop music fans and musicians couldn’t define what was different about British rock ‘n roll, we just knew how it made us feel. Standing unaware on the event horizon of a new future, we sensed that everything else was passé.

I watched as my brother and his friend Keith, who were both quite capable guitarists and singers, struggled to isolate the genie in this new music. They tried different fingerings, combed their hair down, affected Liverpuddlian accents, held their guitars a little higher on their chests Marsden- and Lennon-style, but two Californian kids attempting to master the British sound, could never capture the essence of Englishmen trying to mimic Americans. Nor could they put their callused picking fingers on the pulse of those desperately hopeful young lives across the sea that rose from the rubble of the second world war and ascended to new heights against the gravity of gritty grey towns. Even the legends that fired the imaginations of the barnstorming British bands, the old timers like the Every Brothers, Roy Orbison…even Elvis, would soon drop their hair but ultimately suffer at the misfortune of being Yanks.

I was a budding record collector as the invasion slammed home in Glendora, California – Rain Bird Town as some called the village once famous for lemon orchards and its namesake sprinkler manufacturer. I listened faithfully to the amplitude modulated DJs at KRLA and KFWB for the debut of every new revelatory disc. In an effort to remain hip to the changing music scene, would cycle three miles to the waiting room of the greyhound bus station in Azusa which housed the only magazine rack in the valley that, in addition to a lurid collection of what they then called ‘smut’, featured Billboard magazine. In those, the recording industry’s insider pages, I learned what records were being released and by whom. And even better, I would discover what new acts were headed our way before the jocks premiered their records.

Although this knowledge elevated my status among several of my peers, it also illuminated the deficiencies of our local record stores. The miniscule record bins at the likes of Vons, White Front, MayCo and so on, carried only a few selections beyond the Fab Four, the DC5, and the Animals. But many other UK musical treasures, which Billboard’s cryptic press releases told me were out there, only existed in ‘major record stores.’ And no major anything was within bicycle range of Rain Bird Town.

I was frantic to hear all this music, not just the hits that found their way onto Dick Biondi, Bill Balance, Bob Eubanks, Bobby Pickett, Casey Kasem, B. Mitchell Reed, Wolfman Jack and others’ play lists, but the obscure (even then) tunes on LPs, EPs, B-sides, promo discs and coveted British pressings. I became obsessed. My head began to swim with titles that had to join my collection. Out of sheer mental overload, I jotted them all down lest a critical song fall through my mnemonic grasp. The ensuing tally I titled Needs List then slashed two lines beneath for emphasis…as if it needed any.

 

As collectors of anything know, the specter of a missing piece in a set creates a gnawing at one’s peace-of-mind that cannot be ignored. Such a gnawing chewed at me as I looked at the growing discrepancy between my list and the selection available to me locally (the internet and Amazon were still decades away). There was only one solution: Wallic’s Music City… downtown LA, over 20 miles beyond the reasonable range of my bike and my roving experience. Los Angeles was too far to ride, and unfortunately, it was out of the question to ask my folks for a lift. My parents, had become convinced by a persuasive pack of nattering John Birch nabobs (and a sleazy little book entitled, Rhythm, Riots and Revolution) that rock ‘n roll was a communist plot to corrupt American youth prior to the Red’s invasion. There was no hope they were going to drive me to godless Babylon to satiate my thirst for recordings by those subversive fairies from Britain.

I was not deterred. As an independent and quite capable 14 year old, I would navigate the public transportation system into the sleazy streets of Los Angeles in search of music from the seedy streets of London, Liverpool and Manchester, England. If it was Marxist subversion that made me so gloriously happy with only a bar or two of this music, then I guess I was condemned to be a commie.

In April of 1964, thirty-five cents bought a 27 mile ride through Azusa, Monrovia, Duarte and Artesia into the City of Angels. The smog lifted as my bus penetrated the heart of the city. With the driver’s ambiguous warning to, “watch your step, kid,” ringing ominously behind me, I stepped onto the filthy sidewalks. Within the first minute on my own in “The City” as Sergeant Joe Friday used to call it, I had sidestepped a puddle of vomit, ignored two pan handlers and evaded the unsettling glare of a doomsday preacher raving under the triple ravages of Tourett’s Syndrome, Vino Paisano and a perfectly reasonable terror at the looming threat of thermonuclear destruction – a threat so tangible that within seven months, an image of a little girl picking flowers in the instant before being immolated by a nuclear burst, would sway the American public into rejecting Barry Goldwater’s bid for the presidency on the grounds that his itchy trigger finger would lead us to nuclear war.

If you doubt why I bother to yammer about that wild fellow’s fears, remember by then there were millions of fallout “shelters” and bags of spoiled survival provisions wasting away in American’s basements and beneath their backyards in the wake of the cold war’s closest call in the waters off Cuba. This fear, in equal measure, fueled the joyous clamor with which the music I sought was received in the US.

I had never seen or smelled mad, drunk, hopeless, and perverted people in such numbers or such proximity as those that milled on the streets within raving distance of the city hall’s iconic tower. The structure had always seemed so white, so pristine on TV’s Dragnet. As I walked in its shadow, sixty-five dollars earned by delivering papers and mowing lawns, lay like a coveted prize in my jeans pocket. In defense of my riches, I clamped the wad of bills in my hand and watched people’s red eyes for signs of aggression. A harrowing fifteen minute walk found me at my destination: Wallic’s Music City, a major record store.

The bins stretched out before me in categories of music beyond my understanding. The room smelled of the seductive combination of vinyl and freshly inked record jackets. At that age hard-ons were not difficult to come by, and I swear the atmosphere in that splendid room – and to be honest, the Julie London album covers – tested all my powers of restraint. When I found the generous selection of rock ‘n roll, I forgot my dick, and dove in. In those days records were available in stereophonic or monoraul (a word invented by ad men when stereo technology demanded a name for its inferior single channel cousin). A stereo pressing, if available, cost $2.49 and mono only $1.99. At two bucks a pop, I would get maximum bang for my sixty-five bucks.

I waded into the As – Adam Faith – and ended in the Ss – the Swingin’ Blue Jeans, the Zombies were still a few months away. When my money had expired, except for a few dollars reserved for lunch at a Woolworth’s lunch counter and a couple of breathtakingly lurid girlie magazines from one of the newsstands, my booty numbered 15 long-playing albums, 1 extended-play disc, and 6 singles. I clutched the heavy bag of recordings – oil was cheap and in vast supply in 1964, and record discs were thick and durable – and made my way back to the bus stop with Peter Asher, Gordon Waller, Gerry Marsden and his brother, Billy J Kramer, Mike Pender, Sean McNally, Graham Nash, Allan Hicks, Eric Burdon, Allen Price and a host of new British friends.

As the bus made its tedious afternoon journey back to Rain Bird Town I thumbed through the LPs. By time the bus arrived at my stop on Alosta and Foothill, I had read all the liner notes and learned the names of all the band members. The girlies would have to wait for scrutiny in a more private setting. Meanwhile, the prevailing residents of my record racks: Gene Pitney, Bobby Darin, Ray Charles, The Four Seasons, The Beach Boys, even the Everly Brothers went neglected and unplayed for months as I wore the stylus of my mother’s miserable Victrola to a nub.

I was in rock ‘n roll heaven for a while: on the cutting edge, ahead of the curve, possessed of major bragging rights to my musically aware friends. But by the end of the year and a furious torrent of new releases from the Beatles et al, my collection was riddled with gaping holes. I turned to the Needs List to keep it all straight, but my meager teenaged buying power and the explosive expansion of the new rock catalog overwhelmed me. To make matters worse – far worse – sixteen months after I had arrived home from LA with my vinyl bundle, my parents decided to pull their stakes from California’s soil and move to Utah.

In that summer, of all summers, I had every reason to stay; Southern California – the civilized world – was undergoing a fission of possibilities that extended beyond the remarkable new music. We all can recall the mileposts that marked the explosion of social consciousness, justice, technology and science. And sadly, we know the fear, the riots, the hatred and assassinations that marked the “push-back” to these changes. For my father, these were most likely the forces that sent him packing from a shady street just a stone’s throw from fragrant orange groves, to the impenetrable slump block suburbs of a surreal Utah town. Whatever his reasons, one evening in August 1965, eighteen months after I had watched the Beatles launch the reinvention of rock ‘n roll via Mr. Sullivan’s TV broadcast to our living room on Marcile Avenue – and just about the time Satisfaction (I Can’t Get No) was relinquishing its summer-long hold on the airways over Los Angeles – my father conspired with his John Birch Society buddies on how to best remove one’s family from that brilliant, roiling world.

That very evening I gathered with 18,700 Beatle devotees at the Hollywood Bowl, and from a good seat watched as the nexus of this cultural renaissance – the Fab Four themselves – rocketed through a manic set of irresistible tunes. Later John Lennon called it his favorite Beatle concert, it was certainly ours. The legendary mania was in full bloom. The screaming – which for the record included shouts of euphoria, frantic pleas to be recognized, and desperate tearful cries at the impossible distance between the boys from Liverpool and the girls from Los Angeles – never stopped to gasp for breath.

A few quiet hours earlier, before the bedlam descended, the scent of laurel from the Hollywood Hills hung heavily in the air above the Bowl, and the pollen from flowering canyon Yucca settled without regard for fame on our empty seats and on the lacquer, leather and brass of Ringo’s silent drums. Later, as we filled that amphitheater, an anxious charge built to what would become an ear-splitting discharge as the boys from the future took the stage. The electrons within us kids had pulsed with the knowledge that soon we would breathe the same fragrant evening air as our heroes.

That evening I screamed, too – howled, really – in empathy with the crowd. We instinctively sought to send the vibrations from our lungs to register in a communication with the four lively young men on the stage. The Beatles had three, three-hundred watt VOX amplifiers…we had the numbers. Together we made a joyful noise.

In a month, Bob Dylan, airborne on the cyclone of Like A Rolling Stone, would touch down on that same stage. The clubs on Sunset Strip, just 30 minutes from my bedroom radio, would morph from striptease to folk-rock, and I would watch the world shrink in the rear window as the family car made its way north up I-15 to fortress Utah, and the past.

Demoralizing social and cultural difficulties notwithstanding, in Provo I had to come to grips with the difficulty of hip record acquisition in the hometown of Brigham Young University, a Mormon institution which had just officially declared a ban on amplified music, and employed monitors to measure the distance between its co-eds’ kneecaps and the hems of their skirts. I was not happy, but I was not deterred. I had to turn to locating new releases and music news via letters from friends back in Rain Bird Town, by visits to Billboard magazines in the BYU library, and from Gloria Stavers’s – god bless her – monthly column in Sixteen magazine. It was a teenybopper publication – a ‘chick rag’ – that I had to handle discreetly for fear of homophobic remarks from my brothers and their pals. When I discovered a promising release, I would order the record from the Schwann Catalog at a local music shop then wait out the interminable pre-Fed Ex shipping cycle until I got the call that my disc had arrived.

By this time my parents’ rampage against communist musical-brainwashers (which had not subsided even though we now lived safely sequestered in the land of Zion) had reached a level so uncomfortable that I began smuggling the incendiary vinyl contraband into the house. Freak Out, It Crawled Into My Hand Honest, Are You Experienced to name three, are records that first found their way into my bedroom racks via the basement window. By 1966, my musical passion had become a crime.

As the shock of JFK’s loss, the epiphany of British Rock, and the pain of the transplant to Provo had softened, the music moved to the frequency modulated radio bands – FM or “underground” radio as the hip new DJs preferred to call their medium – and the rock, pop and folk canon grew too broad for anything but the most wealthy and obsessive record collectors to keep up. My list eventually fell from attempting to remain comprehensive to settling on being selective. Rolling Stone had replaced Billboard as my essential record guide. But the top one-hundred chart rarely contained more than six or seven artists I could recognize. My collection numbered a respectable 300 LPs, organized in wire racks which consumed every available inch in my living room (I did eventually graduate to the ubiquitous brick-and-board storage system), but in the back of my mind I was unsettled, I knew the recorded world was passing me and my odd-job income by. But what could I do with limited funds? I consoled myself disingenuously: Enough was enough. There was more to life than music…wasn’t there?

With this notion embedded like a thorn in the feet of my consciousness, and with memories of my overwhelmed Needs List and those spasms of musical delight nearly fifty years old, I awoke this morning to the dimly illuminated shapes of a Motel 6’s familiar furnishings and a wholly unexpected renewal of my musical passion.

Glendora foliage

They say you can’t go home…can’t go back. I understand this wisdom is offered as a warning not to dip too deeply into crippling nostalgia, but when my eyes opened the past was the last thing on my mind. Coffee was a far more urgent matter. I could have been in any 6, anywhere. For a few moments I was geographically disconnected. It wasn’t alarming, in fact at times I savor such disorientation; being lost – anonymity – has its rewards.

The muffled roar of an air conditioner laboring beneath my window consumed the sounds of a new day’s gears falling into place. The comforting drone was responsible no doubt for last night’s fabulous sleep in this foreign, friendly bed. A smile settled over my face. I love the road. I love the roar. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that I have left my home in Oregon on occasion with no better motive than to drift, as I did last night, into happy dreams on waves of a motel AC’s mesmerizing pink noise. But I was not traveling so aimlessly on this trip, I was on the road from work in Tucson back to Portland to meet my doctor and take several passes through his MRI tunnel.

An opaque drape blocked the incandescence of the blazing morning sun; only a yellow corona escaping around the hem of the curtain hinted at the day outside. In a flurry of well-practiced motions, I leapt from the bed and coaxed a cup of crappy java from the coffee device. While the happy little machine gurgled itself dry, I threw back the curtains. The sensuous double humps of the San Gabriel Mountain’s foothills loomed beyond the glass, a visual reference first burned into my brain in 1950. I was back in Rain Bird Town.

Before remembering to pull on some clothes, I swung the door wide to encourage sunlight and the familiar fragrance of oleander and citrus blossoms into my room. Lingering absent mindedly in the doorway, I committed an unintended act of indecency upon anyone who might have been watching the progress of palm shadows across my door. I was that comfortable back on this turf, and that oblivious to the scars across my naked belly. When it dawned how exposed I was, I retreated from the open door and fell back into bed. The AC ramped up to a howl in an attempt to cool the entire San Gabriel Valley.

With the fan’s roar in my head and the caffeine in my veins, I grabbed a 3×5 card from my deck on the bedside table and settled against the pillows to wince at the abominable coffee and to plan my day. But plans did not materialize; instead my mind paged through memories of a walk I had taken yesterday. The walk was, in fact, the reason my route from Tucson back to Portland ran so improbably through this placid suburb town east of Los Angeles. I had detoured from the logical to walk the stations-of-the-cross one tends to trace when touring their childhood home. In a nostalgic haze I visited my grade school, the city baseball diamonds, what had once been the Rexall soda fountain (a Korean bar BQ now), the site of my first real kiss, and the cemetery, where, as one of the young sons of the local American Legion’s Commander, I was, from solemn time to time, obliged to stand at attention during nerve shattering 21 gun salutes over soldiers recently returned from the 39th parallel to Rain Bird Town’s rocky alluvial soil.

My feet scuffled along weathered sidewalks and across the initials of playmates scrawled when the walks were wet concrete so many summers ago. The characters are still sharply defined, as legible as the week the cement cured. It was if I had never left, and I suppose the taste of immortality that accompanies that sense is what I and all of us seek when we return to these treasured places. Sure, crippling nostalgia may be a trap, but I don’t regard this town and its icons as relics to be regarded at a cautious distance. An essential unsettled part of my spirit still haunts these streets after I was forced away at my father’s whim a half-century ago without time to make peace with the losses.

Since that mythic departure, I have returned for a dozen fleeting visits to this place, but yesterday was different – beyond reminiscence. Perhaps it is because in these precious, teetering days I am moved to put all my spirits at ease. Perhaps it is because yesterday the AM, FM, HD and XM airways coursing through Rain Bird Town were alive with a reprise of the very notes that once accompanied my friends and I as we played out the parts of carefree California youth. For whatever reason, yesterday I lingered. I listened and encountered echoes of my youthful voice ringing from familiar old surfaces with an élan and understanding I had forgotten I ever possessed.

The vantage of this visit was different, the result perhaps of last year’s threatening events and the procedures awaiting me back in Portland, but I no longer pictured my young phantom navigating these comfortable streets as a Tom Sawyer. Yesterday I saw him as Huck Finn, a more fully-formed, savvy self than I had taken credit for then, or for too many years thereafter. Better late than never. Then it occurred to me: Huck wouldn’t have abandoned his passions – his Needs List.

I sipped coffee from the 6’s plastic mug and stared blankly at my 3×5 card and realized that perhaps in the trauma of being extracted from the burgeoning musical airways and a promising life, I left too much behind. But would Huck have whined?

Even as I stroll these days beneath the canopy of oaks and acacia, and pass through the scent of Glendora’s generous gardens, I don’t think wistfully of what I missed, or the part of me that remained behind. Leaving the benevolent weather, the citrus groves, my music friends, the awakening girls, the redwood-bouldered bungalows and their profusion of Mediterranean foliage, and the opportunity to grow within a tight community were the cards I was dealt. We made a stand elsewhere, yet when I take long walks up these congenial boulevards, I cannot avoid considering my father’s decision to flee, or ponder what darkness clouded his vision to where he could only see danger in this the most peaceful corner of the valley, when to my ears, so much joy was in the air. He seemed so much more courageous a man.

Of course there was some danger. Wildfires often ravage the San Gabriel Mountains and occasionally consume the outlying homes of Rain Bird Town and other villages crouched in the folds of the Gabriel Foothills. A conflagration can explode at the touch of lightning, or ignite spontaneously in the volatile oils of the chaparral brush with nothing more than the sparks from tumbling stones. It was an incendiary summer when we left, but my father imagined a different threat, a greater danger posed by what he viewed as a hostile black population forty-five minutes to the west. His evidence: their uprising in Watts against the LAPD that August. His motivation: a cadre of neo-nazi bigots who fouled our peaceful neighborhood and his mind like weevils in sweet grain.

I prefer not to think of our departure from Rain Bird Town as a flight in fear, but rather as moving like hobos to the call of something romantic.

Fortress Utah
I prefer to imagine that perhaps the bounty of this town was too anchoring for Dad’s roving spirit. I will never truly understand what manifest destiny was so profound as to uproot a family from such a fair place. Maybe it wasn’t Watts. Maybe he figured that his son’s friendships were getting too deep, too substantial. Maybe in his mind his boys were getting too soft, too settled…too happy. Enough was enough. The growth of roots was a malignancy.

Distracted from my morning list by the chaparral hills simmering outside my motel window, I thought about those friendships and tried to recall the names of the kids who shared those magic days. I came up with only three: Scotti, the manic Italian kid who shared my love of a new sound arriving from England and who’s pencil lead still lingers in the palm of my left hand; Cynthia, the achingly enticing Dutch Indies girl who lived across my street, and Larry, a black-hearted worldly-beyond-his years buddy who seemed destined to introduce me to every vice available in San Gabriel valley had I made it to sixteen and beyond in his presence. The rest are blank slots erased by time from a roster of friends that in the summer of ‘65 was filling rapidly. To my regret, when dropped suddenly at the feet of the Wasatch Mountains in Central Utah, with a freak September snowstorm only three weeks away, and with postage up to seven cents a stamp, I lost touch with them all.

I often marvel at my current friends’ abilities to recall acquaintances from all ages in their live; and am amazed at their frequent bump-ins with old pals and lovers when we are on the town together. I feel awkward and a little jealous in these encounters. Without the continuum of relationships or the validation of one’s existence through common stories, it is as if the past is only a fantasy. Like a jerk, I quickly change the subject from their class reunions and tales of old best friends to whom I cannot relate. The duration of his sons’ friendships that to my dad had once seemed quite long enough, were clearly insufficient.

As embarrassing as it is to admit the brevity of the list of friends from those days in southern California, I can list the names of at least thirty people from damp distant cities in England – people whom I have never met except to have laid eyes upon from within the frenzied crowd at the foot of their stages, or ear upon from within the spiraling grooves of their shiny black vinyl.

 

To be continued in Part Two in Some Gumbo.

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas Pelican

Pals - Acrylic on lumber, by Nellyda Anslow

Pals – Acrylic on lumber, by Nellyda Anslow

 

 

 

 

 

 

The insects that flew in
to visit our Christmas candles last night
scramble at first light to find their way out
across the Strait of Cerralvo
back to the sun.
No more foolish than my pursuits…

I wolf down a mango and dried fish
and follow them to the sea,
into awareness of the inscrutable pelican.

On my knees in the bright morning
sand sizzling with froth of expended waves
I comb the beach intent on shells,
the pelican is evasive
distant in his work.
We spend a brimming day together…

Aloft on favorable air above Bahia Ventana
he patrols for flashing fish,
I search on all fours for beauty.

A hundred times he plunges
with vital purpose into jeweled waters
and as many times I pluck treasures
from extended fingers
of the sea.
Again, again Bahia’s waters withdraw generously…

I rise from the surf bearing blinding agates
and shells of preposterous beauty.
How much plunder from this playa is enough?

The pelican knows in precise terms,
a regal, unfurling of wings…reveals nothing
but flight to granite boulders beyond reach
of the highest tides
and the meddlesome.
And I ascend only to my tingling feet…

I plunge into the shore break to wash away
sweat, and scour coarse pebbles
pressed deep into my palms and knees.

Before my skin rebounds
it bears a print, an exact impression
of my last true points of contact
with this place
with the pelican’s playa.
And I start hungrily for El Sargento…

Home clings crazily to bare stones
above the flotsam of great storms,
of legends that spawn the names of children.

My footprints track below the pelican’s perch
solemn bill tucked against fine feathers
never stirs at my passage,
why should he
why would he?
Salute a clown moving aimlessly on his beach…

Should a man register with any more
significance in endless days
than a drifting tangle of sea grass?

But this man regards the pelican with earnest eyes
Bahia’s great grey resident remains unruffled
no trace of fatigue after a productive day.
no discernible sign
of being well fed.
No different than before the fish rose like an offering…

The pelican is so close…still I don’t see
evidence of the churning digestion
that must be alive within him.

The pelican is so close…I see the down
on his stoic head rustle in dying afternoon winds
but even in such proximity
I can only imagine
a common contentment.
For a day’s shared enterprise along the playa…

The insects will return
with sun fading on a Baja daydream.

Christmas candles will not illuminate
the shadowed straits between our being,
but the pelican’s gut is full of fish
and my pockets overflow
with gorgeous sea shells…and that is enough.

Don Anslow, 12/25/13