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

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…

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Prologue to Night Lessons – A Novel

Rolling HillsThe dust behind the mail carrier’s old Buick still curled into the late summer sky as the rattling six-cylinder disappeared down the lane from the Schwaang’s farm to the village of Othello, Washington. The sound of the postman’s rig was only a murmur, and fading fast as Hank Schwaang stepped from the shade of the front porch into the silence of the bright, rolling landscape. Its emptiness collapsed upon him like a wave.

The road from the Schwaangs stretched across fifteen miles and three hilltop horizons on its course back to town. When not churned by the vibration of pistons and the crunch of worn tires on gravel, the sonic signature along this lane was that of wind hissing through the hairy heads of mature wheat in summer, crying amongst lifeless stubble in autumn, and howling over the icy, broken fields in winter.

On the day the letter arrived, the hissing was just turning to tears.

The anxious nineteen year-old stepping into the hot September sun had always aspired to rise above this land–to fly. It was not just an expression. Not just a dream. It was a passion he had nurtured since boyhood–picturing himself content in no other endeavor. Finally, on July 5th, 1942, with the smell of gunpowder still fresh on the cardboard husks of last night’s fireworks, and with the molasses days of August threatening, he had resolved to put the wheels in motion by applying for ‘agricultural flight training’ at Duster Enterprises.

Two months and ten days had crawled by since that resolution. Today, as Hank looked out to the road, he could see that in the wake of the postman, the red tin flag on the mailbox had been lowered. The chances for mail were promising. Finches trilled from a roadside thistle at the scuffling of his boots along the stone path to the box, a path he had followed many times before while his imagination churned with ever-rising expectations at the arrival of the ‘Preflight Kit’ from Duster’s Sacramento office.

Hank had read and re-read their advertisement in Popular Mechanics: ‘Learn To Fly Them.’  The message leapt from magazine pages stacked like dry leaves out in the Schwaang privy. The ad’s crude lithograph depicted a Waco bi-plane suspended forever above the last row of some forgotten crop. Two plumes of white dust fell away like a rope cast from a ship, as the powerful aircraft swooped up to clear a cottonwood hedgerow by inches.

Three Weeks To A Career In Aeronautics,’ read the copy, and Hank dreamt it to be so. He knew he could not follow his father to the endless fields forever. His destiny would not allow it. The wind sweeping across his old man’s broken soil blew with gusts of fortune–bringing welcome wet weather from the west or arctic misery from the north. It could scour away the very soil on which families’ lives were founded. Its turbulence could even wear a young man’s dreams away. And with the sharp edges of his imagination blunted, a fellow might stop picturing any vision beyond what he already knows–beyond what he can lay his hand, his eyes, or a spade upon.

The whirlwinds dancing for no one across fields of freshly turned sod spoke of loneliness, but Hank was determined to step beyond the empty routines of the wheat lands; its open space was suffocating. The pre-destiny of his friends’ lives, like the cattle he and his father tended, seemed pointless. They never questioned their fates, but he would certainly question his. He knew that the farms over in Yakima Valley would soon demand crop dusters like those out in Texas and down in California. Soon as the war got over, he guessed, a whole crop of flyboys would be coming home and grabbing up those jobs. He was going to get in on the action while the getting was good.

It wasn’t only clever career strategy that inspired the young man walking out to the mailbox that afternoon. More than any other reason, passion fueled his desire to fly. A hundred times he had kicked his father’s tractor into neutral just to watch a hawk rising high on thermals swirling up from the baked fields. Over the soft chugging of the diesel, he imagined the sound of air moving through stiff feathers. And once, while deer hunting alone in the lee of a high ridge, he had nearly touched a Golden Eagle. The huge bird had ridden a wave along the ridge’s crest, and at the sight of prey, had dropped, passing only a few feet above Hank’s head. For a moment he heard the very sound of air supporting the great bird: the hiss through polished barb and the unexpected slapping of ragged, trailing feathers. The spellbound young hunter even thought he heard the tips of talons tearing at the sky itself.

At dusk on late summer days, with dew already settling on grateful growing things, swallows would patrol the air space immediately above his mother’s lush back yard. Hank would walk the lawn just to watch the little birds fly at impossibly slow speeds, only inches above the grass, to intercept invisible insects his feet had scared into the air. The swallows’ magical flight–so low and so close–and the hopeful advertisement still tucked in his wallet, had served to bring Hank’s dream within reach.

With his Duster Enterprises application sent, so began Hank’s sentry at the mailbox. Like a kid enduring the torturous ‘seven to ten weeks’ for a box-top prize to arrive from a cereal company, Hank’s wait stood at day 71 when fate finally rolled up to the box. With the mail carrier’s dust just settling back to earth, Hank felt his future might begin at any second.

The rusted steel latch on the gate squealed in protest as Hank stepped from the front yard out to the galvanized box teetering on its post. A tangle of Morning Glory clung to the box, and one curling tendril tried to block Hank’s access to the lid, but to no avail– the mail always got through.

Hank threw open the box and, sure enough, a single letter addressed to Mr. Henry Schwaang Jr. lay there like a thin white wafer in a hot oven. He had expected the ‘Preflight Kit’ to be much more substantial. Hank snatched the envelope from the box. Its white paper was almost blinding in the summer sun, so he held it in the shade. His young eyes quickly adjusted as he read the return address:

United States Government
Department of Defense

And so it was that the draft board got to Hank Schwaang before Duster Enterprises. Standing beside that empty road with a torn envelope dangling uselessly from one hand, and Uncle Sam’s greetings held up to questioning eyes with the other, Hank remained frozen at a juncture of possibilities. One hopeful route would have led him to buzzing the tops of tall hedgerows and scraping the bottom of drifting summer clouds; the other route to a less lofty place–one, that with a war raging in Europe, was far less certain in its destination.

After reading and re-reading his orders to report for induction in Yakima, Hank had guessed it was a safe bet he could kiss his flying dreams good-bye, but that would have been a bet lost. The arrival of his draft notice that distant morning had interrupted Hank’s soaring plans, but it had not robbed him of his opportunity to fly. In fact, eight months after being swept into the service, Corporal H. Schwaang had earned his wings, and fly he had, not swooping over looming summer hedgerows, but gliding helplessly over Normandy in the dead of a treacherous night–the pilot of thirteen doomed  participants in the silent airborne invasion of Europe. Their wars ended in a few terrible moments. Their pilot never considered himself so lucky.

 

Burnt Toast

Oven BallI don’t mean to whine, but if I remember correctly, I am plagued by absentmindedness…or is it forgetfulness? I can’t recall. To be honest, I am unclear whether they are even the same irritating affliction. The former seems to an acceptable, almost noble cross for the sufferer to bear as the price for struggling, in the name of constructive or oh-so-damn-important endeavors, to remain attentive to an unnatural volume of trivial matters – passwords, tax deadlines, your wedding anniversary, etc. The latter being the sad, irresistible decline inherent in racking up years on the planet.

I shouldn’t be alarmed. Like millions of my spectacle-losing, keys-misplacing peers, conceived in the fertile frenzy following V-day, I endure a niggling decay of memory synapses. I – we – do so with the same resignation that accompanies our bones’ creaky climb upwards through their sixth and seventh decades.

Niggling may be too kind.

To wit, I find myself earnestly shaking the hands of my wife’s friends’ husbands as I frantically scan empty memory banks for their damned names. I stare at the email I have so carefully crafted, uncertain whether or not I just clicked ‘send’. My associates have probably grown used to – or weary of – my follow-up messages begging their pardons at once again forgetting to include the attachment that the first email was intended to bear. I lose count of how many reps I’ve just completed at the gym. I lose my car. I forget to buy toothpaste, or worse, forget to include it on a shopping list of items especially intended to catalog what I have already forgotten so I won’t forget again. None of which I recall until the following night when I am faced with a flat, fully expired tube of Senior Sensodyne and am forced to accept the option of brushing the few good teeth I have left with baking soda, or resorting to a guilty squeeze from my grand daughter’s Princess Sparkle Paste.

Typical geezer’s complaint right? We all swallow these lapses with comic resignation. We are the butt of our own Alzheimer jokes, and we snicker along with our graying friends. Yet we peak at the NIH website for a definitive set of early symptoms that will confirm our fates or let us off the hook. We stop in the pharmacy aisles and steal a glance at the Ginkgo and B-12 supplements that, like Viagra for the brain, supposedly raise our mnemonic powers to reasonably acceptable heights. More recently we have been targeted with new interactive, computer-based ‘mental work-outs’ like Lumosity that promise – and I am sure deliver – improved cognitive capacity. The marketing wizards behind these products have bet the farm on the hope that we have already forgotten that we could settle down with a substantial book, take a stab at poetry, pick up a musical instrument, quit cheating on the NYT Crossword puzzle, and/or generally disengage from the media to similarly exercise our brains as we circle closer and closer to the drain. But damn, I love my Netflix.

It may be a blessing of the natural order of things that we dim somewhat as we approach the day when the inevitable deal goes down – a mercy that we don’t generally face our maker with a bright mind brimming with awareness and with all mental synapses firing as if awash in Red-Bull. But sometimes this dimming is a downright pain in the ass. In my case the pain is nowhere more regularly endured than in the kitchen, at that most revitalizing of all meals…breakfast. I burn toast. Often. Predictably. In fact, I must one day stand before the Supreme Being and my fellow burners (if you’re out there) and testify: I am incapable of managing my toaster.

It aggravates me because I love bread, and I have always craved toast. My wife, who is a nutritional educator, points out that my affection for gluten accounts for a goodly portion of the weight I fruitlessly labor to remove with those aforementioned reps. What makes all this worse, is the fact that I live in Portland, Oregon. I don’t get out enough I guess, but it has recently come to my attention my town has become somewhat of a scene for foodies, for gourmands de café, and for artisan bread aficionados. No doubt about it, there is some good chow here in rain country. There are more ascending young chefs – culinary Jackson Pollocks – striping and swooshing basil aeolis, wasabi-pomegranate reductions, or asian-tex-mex fusion enfusions across dinner plates here than anywhere west of the Big Apple. And we are blessed with an absurdity of serious coffee roasters, haute barista hipsters, boutique distillers, microbrewers, and my favorite: world-class patisseries.

OMG, let me count the ways: Grand Central Baking, Marsee Bakery, Ken’s Artisan Bread, the Trifecta, the Pearl Loaf…and the list goes on. The bread lover in Portland drifts through fragrant choices, stacked like treasures on these expert bakers’ shelves. All world-class bread, right up there with the wonders emerging from the wood fired ovens of Boulangerie Poilane in Paris. I am lucky to report that on countless, delirious occasion, I have marveled at the perfectly textured, irresistible slabs of toasting stock cleaved from these extraordinary loaves. I have tried them each and every one, and sadly, I have ruined the very best, including recently, my own. With a fatalistic acceptance at the wasting of our great grain lands’ resources, I have extracted the darkened husks of once-lively slices of Como Sourdough, Hawthorne Peasant, Belmont Olive Loaf, and Claremont Ciabatta from the glowing maw of my Toast Master.

My history of over-browning goes way back. I am, regretfully, old enough to remember the day my mother retired the old open-faced toaster, upon which two slices of bread were placed at opposing 75 degree angles just above the heating elements – like roofs on an A-frame. You toasted one side for a prescribed period, opened the artfully engraved access door, turned over your bread and counted down to beautiful toast. You see these wondrous appliances in museums now, but they were great. They demanded attention. Of course, such an attribute is considered a crucial design flaw in our ADHD world. It has now been almost sixty years since I lifted my last slice from the glowing face of that classic device. It seems like yesterday, but back then I had been considered a sure enough operator of the family toasting apparatus, that my parents entrusted me with their bread and the simple instructions: “light brown”, “just warmed” or the treacherous “medium dark”.

Maybe it was because the distractions in my young world were increasing faster than the inventiveness of small appliance engineers, but somehow, my reliability as a toaster of bread went to hell in a proofing basket when the first vertically loaded slot-type electrical resistance toasting apparatus appeared in the Anslow kitchen.

The spring-loaded eject mechanism and the timer were a revelation! Brightness was delineated by vaguely calibrated tick marks around the dial which denoted relative exposure times of bread-to-heating-element. It is hard to comprehend, but like the smart-phone, this technology accelerated to the point that these analog dials even sported colors: white, yellow, orange, dark brown, red! I can’t remember ever producing a slice of red toast, but why quibble in the face of such brilliance. The essential thing was, you couldn’t burn your toast unless you really tried.

My therapist informed me, recently in fact, that the root of my burning problem was, and is, anchored in the fact that in order to achieve a more nuanced level of, say, umber (no, not burnt umber), I try too hard. I attempt to override the predetermined brightness settings assigned to the timing mechanism, she explains, because in my soul I am a libertarian. A rebel. An artist. A poet and don’t know it. Her deductions regarding my pesky but benign problem, are testament to the vast knowledge behind a career’s worth of framed degrees and awards that glare down from a position on the wall located strategically above her couch. Woe unto the self-loathing depressive who sprawls in the imperious heat of her trophies.

Somehow, she managed to do me some good.

I am, as it turns out, psychologically unable to accept another’s instructions without some attempt at intervention. Evidently my Ego just has to stick its nose into everybody’s business. I must have been given a few bum steers as a child, and learned to compensate by mistrust and all that jazz. In the case of the love of my life – toast – this intervention presents itself as ejection of the slice before, or more dangerously, after, a preprogrammed hue is achieved. Fine. But this compulsive intervention/overriding of well-proven toasting protocols requires full attention in order to be successful; such attention was never a problem for me with the old A-frame. That elegant device gave me complete control because there were no controls. I may not have appreciated the Zen qualities of that toaster back then, but no matter, at that tender age I was blessed with a head full of fully functional neurons and ganglia. I had all the cerebral gear necessary to maintain the presence of mind required to flip open the toaster, check the bread, and if necessary return it to the elements as needed.

The A-frame was the perfect tool for a budding, neurotic artiste de toast. Unfortunately, the device was also a pain in the neck for the homemaker with six children to feed and shoo out the door. But with the introduction of Charles Strite’s pop-up toaster, the A-frame disappeared from kitchens at a pace roughly equivalent to the vanishing of the slide rule from engineering departments when the HP (or was it TI) electronic calculator appeared. With the acceptance of Stite’s brainchild in my mother’s kitchen, I was left in the wilderness – alone with the newly introduced vertical slot design we all know and tolerate. This ubiquitous appliance theoretically demands no attention, only a bit of faith in the calibrators of the timing mechanism and a de facto acceptance of their notion of “perfect” toast. So it becomes relevant to ask: Who are these guys? Is there a research and design laboratory somewhere beneath a granite mountain where, under color-corrected lighting, technicians sit with candidate toasters, color temperature meters, and stacks of Wonder Bread to determine an indices of browning, and there-from to establish a master calibration pattern from which the dials, slides or firmware are constructed?

They pass down The Word and consumers must sign on at their peril. If, like me, you wanted dark blonde but their “light” was too light, or you desired brown and their “medium dark” was too dark, you would have to snatch the bread from the toaster’s clutches with fingers or with your mother’s heirloom silverware. This method invited broken heating elements, death by electrocution, or worse: the Wrath of Mom. Alternatively, one could prematurely pop up the eject mechanism by brute force, usually at the cost of correct ejector performance later in the toaster’s life…which sounds uncomfortably familiar. In those days I wasted toast at about a three-to-one clip – one being edible. I have since (and I can’t say I have scientifically validated this improvement) reduced my wastage to 40%. That is: a little less that half of all bread that enters my toaster emerges a smoky ember of its former self. I attribute this improvement as much to my wife’s prodding for me to abandon my libertarian disregard for toaster controls, as to improvements in toasting technology. But still, nothing compensates for my lack of attention. It seems to defy common sense that in four out of ten attempts I can be so easily distracted from such a simple task, yet it happens.

Sometime understandably.

On a beautiful September morning in the fall of 2001, I had risen early to prepare for a flight to Las Vegas where I was to attend a trade exhibit for snack food sorting systems. I started coffee and sliced some bread, intending to bring java and cinnamon toast upstairs so my wife could linger until a respectable hour. She knew my plan, but after some time became curious as to why I hadn’t returned. When she finally drifted downstairs she found water boiling in the kettle, and me staring at the television in disbelief over the cataclysm unfolding in lower Manhattan. She never spoke. We both watched in horror, never noticing the twin columns of smoke rising from the Toast Master.

Sometimes memorably.

We can all be forgiven our distractions, and thankfully things have improved since that black morning. I, for one, am happy to report that I have gradually lowered my spoilage rate down into the solid 40% range I reported a few paragraphs back. But in arriving here I burned through several of Y2K’s best models in search of a machine that would assuage my phobia of complex controls as well as accommodate my resistance to conventional toasting protocol. Eventually in the dawn of the micro-processor era, I hit upon a decent Sears Whirlpool unit that featured a solid state control (probably nothing more than an improved timer) and promised – like Mr. Stiles – perfect toast.I knew better, but I let my expectations soar far too high, until one morning while laboring to make a raft of toast for my family, I snapped.

I had my reasons. I had tried hard to make the over-hyped mechanism work in my admittedly critical world. In an attempt to facilitate the toasting process and more efficiently serve four hungry daughters, one son and one wife, I devised a way to reduce the disruptive trips from breakfast table to toaster. I electrified our table.

On that morning when the mother of invention came to call, I obediently dashed to the garage. In an hour I had rigged up an extension cord and a standard 2 plug receptacle. Then to my wife’s horror, I embedded the fixture into the breakfast table’s oak top. Of course, thinking this creation might soon find its way onto the cover of Popular Mechanics, I finished it off nicely with a 95 cent ivory plastic faceplate – a fine contrast to the antique oak. The result was a nicely crafted electrical convenience that allowed coffee makers, waffles iron, radios, curling irons, hair dryers, and all manner of breakfast essentials to find their way to the morning table. This arrangement also allowed me to char my way through a stack of sliced bread in record time.

I had hoped otherwise. My intention was that on Sunday mornings with the whole fam damnly in attendance, I could stay in my seat. And with the power of semiconductor technology at my command, could focus more fully on the job at hand, thereby avoiding the usual smoky incidents, while saving a few bucks on lost bread. And I could give my chronic tennis elbow a break from the ravages of RSS (Repetitive Scraping Syndrome). It was not to be. The burning continued, perhaps at a slower rate than before, but, damn it, I had expected better. As far as I was concerned the table-top toasting concept and the new technology had failed me, and I was pissed.

In retrospect, all these years later, after immolating all manner of bread with ever more sophisticated units, I realize what everyone else knew all along: It was just me. But on that morning after elevating my hopes so high, such a mature self-accounting escaped me. Right there, before my hungry children’s eyes, I had yet again found distraction enough to burn the usual half loaf. Like a magician “working close”…abracadabra: under there very noses I turned white to black.

I wasn’t happy with my performance.

Enraged that all my efforts were for naught, I took action. An insane calm overcame me. In a dream, I slid my chair back from the table, tossed down my napkin and yanked the cord from the socket. I knew I wasn’t crazy (but my children had their doubts) because I had the presence of mind not to spill the OJ, or to disturb the plug of my daughter’s Lite-Briteas I gathered up the toaster and disappeared out the back door.

I can only imagine what the kids thought when they looked out the window as I reappeared in the driveway where I usually chopped our firewood. They might have giggled, or whimpered in fear, as I placed the offending appliance on the block and grabbed up the splitting maul. A few delirious swipes of the brutal tool did the trick. Plastic, stainless steel, and the tiny circuit board exploded into the suburban morning. I would not be tormented by that toaster again. I returned to the house feeling like Jack Torrance in The Shining. Without a word of explanation or apology for slaying the family toaster, I proceeded to make a stack of beautiful waffles.

Currently I use a Cusinart 4-slot Bagel Capable Toast Master which is equipped with the computing power of Eniac, or at least enough logic to enable the single greatest advance in toasting technology since Georg Ohm discovered resistance: the Cancel button. When I first saw a toaster that allowed you to interrupt the toasting process at will, I was as amazed as the first time I saw Steve Jobs drag a headline across his cuddly Macintosh’s screen. This broke new technological and cultural ground. The famous super bowl ad for the Mac promised freedom from The Man. Likewise, the new toasters offered liberation from the restraints of the primitive control systems. But the marvels of toasting technology (and we are avoiding any mention of the Sunbeam Toaster Oven here) had – and still have – a major and seemingly surmountable engineering deficit: No toaster offers a good visible indicator of the toast’s actual tone. It was and still is hit and miss to dial in your exact chroma. If you are farsighted, as I am, a close inspection of bread browning in the toaster is virtually impossible, and if you are nearsighted, you may lose nasal hair or contact lenses when peering into the slot. I always thought a tiny glass peephole in each side of a toaster would be right up there with Job’s graphic user interface and the “wissywig” concept – what you see is what you get. My brilliant little spy hole would offer exactly that.

Alas, I never worked for Apple or Kitchen Aid, yet neither have their technologies always worked for me. They presuppose the consumer will be content with the choices they have programmed, and if not, will be responsible or handy enough to work around those limitations without scrambling the tax returns, losing the family photos or burning the you-know-what out of the you know what. I accept this as a basic principle of civility in a technical world:

If you don’t accept the limitations of your parameters, then you must be responsible for the consequences of seeking to extend them.

There’s the rub. Although an admitted perfectionist/contrarian when it comes to toast, I am a responsible guy. At one time or another I have been a boy scout, a father, a business owner, a tax payer and a home owner. God knows I accept the consequences for my obstinacy in the face of darkness settings, but I have never abused toaster technologies frivolously or out of malicious rebellion. I know this to be true from a sad history dating back to the days before forgetfulness or absent-mindedness could be assigned to the ravages of age, or before I finally came to grips with the love of God and the ensuing realization that chronic over-browning was not a punishment for my attitude or lack of faith. The creator would never be so cruel. Therefore, in the absence of all conscious, mechanical or metaphysical reasons for burning, there could be a genetic link. It is not so difficult to comprehend: a sequence in my DNA that condemns me to forever stand before the sink with a butter knife and a blackened piece of seven grain bread, intent on salvaging the unlucky slice that fell into my care. Perhaps it is the vaunted double-helix itself that is ultimately responsible for disturbing the happy clatter of breakfast in our kitchen with that rhythmic scraping sound.

Now we were getting somewhere. Somewhere concrete, even if beyond correction. If this niggling disorder were genetic, maybe I could dispense with the Senior Brain Supplements, and ditch the Dhingophase Booster Bark(sic), both of which I adopted into my vitamin regime with nary a drop in the incidence of misplaced keys, forgotten passwords and worse. This promised to be great. I pictured visiting Johns Hopkins Genetic Sciences Department and asking if one of their post-docs might be interested in spending a couple of years of his or her life with me in a dubious effort to isolate and confirm whether a single sequence in the genome’s entire 1,300,000 something structure was associated with transitory cognitive impairment triggered specifically by the toasting of bread. They would look at me as if I really were nuts. Even if their thoroughbred brains could get a handle on such an advanced concept, it was less likely that they might imagine a greater good. Sadly, it was more likely still, that sharp minds would quickly realize distance themselves from such a preposterous notion as they pictured their chances at a Nobel Prize drifting away like a forgotten lyric.

But imagine if that notion could be confirmed. That merely a few A’s and E’s in my genome were misplaced…I would be vindicated, my breakfast guests would regard the scraped toast on their plates with sympathy. Somewhere in the Disabilities Act I might even find a tax write-off for all the wasted bread. And who knows, there might even be a simple psychiatric fix…I mean fix. But more importantly, being a good father, I would encourage the children to get similarly tested so they might avoid the burden of needlessly burning through a significant portion of their food budget.

And as for my wife?

I have come to peace with the fact that she, using the same toaster as me, prepares what well-adjusted people would consider fine golden toast. I have learned to silence the internal demon that rails at her acceptance of tonal imperfections, extracted at what I consider to be arbitrary settings, when the real beauty lies in the un-calibrated regions between medium and medium dark. And I have taken solace in the discovery of traditions of cooking in remote villages of Italy that have explored the beauty of artfully burned food. Which leads, somehow, to today – yesterday evening to be exact.

I recently took up sourdough bread – baking as well as eating – as a hobby. My son, after a decade of diligence, has arrived at a virulent starter that yields gorgeous, flavorful bread. In the search for a cheaper alternative to the loaves Portland’s hipster bakeshops produce, I have followed his lead. Last night, stricken with pride at the crusty, sour boule emerging from my oven, I resolved to document the creation with a couple of photos. It took two hours of torturous cooling for the wondrous gases to perform their flavor-making magic on the heavenly manna locked within the thick crust. Mmm, I could wait, and in the interim, I arranged a handsome still-life.

When the timer finally tinkled a go-ahead to violate the perfect crust, I sliced off three stunning slabs for the composition. I photogenically arranged two beside the open boule. By then the seductive aroma escaping from the bread had filled the kitchen. It overcame me. I could not miss an opportunity to taste fresh dark toast from a virgin cut of warm sourdough, so the critical third slice, regardless of the mathematics underlying compositional theory, went not into the set, but into the toaster.

I flicked the dial to dark, knowing from experience with the Toast Master, that a cycle on what they called “dark” was too light for my palate, and that two full cycles through that setting would burn. But stopping 20 seconds shy of completing the second cycle would produce a bronze-like shade that was truly exquisite. I plunged the ejection lever down and got to work.

I twiddled my camera and fiddled with the set. The image in the viewfinder was coming together. Halogen lights above the counter brought the subtle spectrum, of what can only be chromatically described as the “bread” tones, to glorious life. I was ready to shoot when, up popped the toast. Cycle one. Without a thought I reached across the counter and pressed the lever again. I turned the lights above the counter to several different angles then snapped off a few hopeful shots. A quick preview revealed an image that, to a bread lover’s eye, was perfection. The texture of the crumb, the flake on the cleaved crust, the sheen off the boule’s sensuous round surface…a prize winning shot of such visual glory that I forgot how wonderful the bread in the toaster would taste. For safety’s sake, I was about to click on the camera’s HDR mode to guarantee a good dynamic range when my wife walked into the kitchen.

I looked up from the camera, smiling like a child at my accomplishment: My first truly stunning loaves and a great photograph to boot. She glanced at the appealing still-life on the counter, then at me. Apparently she didn’t share my enthusiasm. She wasn’t smiling. The poor woman exhaled in exasperation, and in sympathy, my smile crumbled. My eyes followed hers from the bright bronze crust of my sourdough to the adjacent counter where the first wisps of smoke were curling from the Toast Master.

In a moment the smoke alarm would squeal like a banshee…again.