Quiet Places for Reflection and Regrouping
I always loved American libraries, first the one in my hometown, even though the 175-year-old spinster librarian prohibited high-school kids from reading Hemingway or Steinbeck or Faulkner. The ones she should have censored were Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken, America’s most surgical truth seers and tellers. In that same town I lent my girlfriend my prized collection of books by contemporary American authors and later found that her mother had burned them all because they were “paperbacks.”
I also loved the Aspen library, a wonderfully clean, well-lighted place where I would spend time on weekends after digging ditches all week. It was great to sit down midst a sea of books and people speaking in muffled tones. The conversation in a ditch is pretty limited. I didn’t discover the Kirtland Community College (named after the Kirtland warbler, unique to that area) library until my second trip back to the States to visit my mother. Set in a piney woods a few miles outside Roscommon, Michigan, my search for a quiet place took me there. It was spring break so there were just the two librarians and me in what seemed to be a new building, all on one floor and nicely carpeted throughout.
The librarians were soft-spoken and solicitous and the photocopy machine turned out flawless copies for a nickel apiece. I asked one of them if the library was open to the public and she said, yes, of course, local people, as well as students, could check out books. How many local folks took advantage of that luxury? Nobody, she said.
On another trip to visit my family, I spent a couple of mornings at the University of Michigan library at Ann Arbor. I explained to the receptionist that I was neither student nor faculty, that I just wanted to do some research. She seemed happy to attend me and said the whole library was at my disposal. The only thing I couldn’t do was take anything out. At that time they had an innovative searchable database based on CD’s. That must have been the late 80’s. What a privilege to live in those high-tech times and now these.
Hindsight, Though Not Cheap, Is Better
At the age of 75 one spends a lot of time looking back. My distant past was in the USA, where I was born and raised, went to college, was drafted into the army, and was discharged with a whole new outlook on life:”I’ve got to get out of here!” I’ve been “out” now for just over half a century. Looking back from this Andalusian village where I arrived in 1969 and have lived ever since, I can see my home country from a well-seasoned point of view, with all the patriotic Kool-Aid having been washed out of my system over the years by Spanish spring water and rich red wine. There was a lot to love about the United States in the 50’s and 60’s of the last century. Though we weren’t entirely aware of it then, looking back from the present it’s pretty transparent.
What strikes me first is the innocence, and what leaps out of that bucolic scene is the shock and awe of America’s utter loss of it. Try the test on yourself. Look at your world as far back as you can remember, then compare it with today. Everything has changed. The Spanish have a nice phrase for that. They say, “Ha llovido.” “It has rained,” with all that implies. A lot of streets have been cleaned, others muddied, and a lot of promontories have been washed away. They won’t be back.
It’s not that all was innocence. There’s always been vice but in those days it was mostly limited to intimate, personal, small-time vice, unlike today when evil pervades everything, big-time, big-bucks institutional, government and corporate vice. It’s a way of life, viciousness at home and abroad. Nowadays the authorities and their spokesfolks don’t even try to keep it secret. It’s simply the new reality, business as usual. One suspects they leak out just a bit of the worst of it, to keep our minds off the rest. Maybe that’s the quintessence of Trumpism: simply turn the President loose with his daily tantrums and soiled diapers. Midst all that brouhaha the distracted citizens aren’t inclined to look further.
And I see freedom in those days, not the freedom politicians peddle but garden-variety, every-day freedom. When we were kids and were rebuked by other kids, what did we reply? “It’s a free country!” Because it felt as though it was. You could jump in the river, build a tree house, take your dog walking cross country, ice-skate on the creek (which we called “the crick”), catch bluegills from the grassy slope behind the town library, go barefoot… That was, of course, before it occurred to any of us to grow our hair long or exercise our first amendment rights.
A Glimpse of A Better Life, Then More War
The Sixties were great, too, though I missed most of them. I was in college from ’61 to ’65, seriously academic for the first two years and derailed during the second half. (We rented a big farmhouse and rented the barn out on weekends for fraternity parties. It was a miracle it didn’t burn down.) Then from ’66 to ’68 I was in the U.S. Army. Ironically, that was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It got me so fed up with everything American, both military (Vietnam) and civil (Nixon) that I made up my mind to leave. Where would I be today if it weren’t for the U.S. Army? A retired advertising hack living in Flint, Michigan, taking antidepressants and drinking bottled water?
Though I was hardly present, there was a lot of moving and shaking going on in America in the sixties. The kids had their raucous say and for a while it seemed that someone was listening. But that was a mirage and the conservative backlash was fearsome: Elvis in the Army, Chuck Berry in jail, Martin Luther King and both Kennedys murdered, the Black Panthers “neutralized,” harmless, just-fun drugs criminalized (Go directly to jail.), the Vietnam War–which never should have started–interminable, Washington corruption on the march, the reign of what was to become the neo-con movement rearing its head (Rumsfeld was Nixon’s head of the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1969).
Getting out of the Army was a milestone in my life, “discharging you” they called it. Very apt that. But it meant freedom. Free at last, you could choose what you wanted to wear every morning, and what you wanted to do. You could choose your friends and colleagues from a pool of normal people. The army is largely populated by individuals you don’t want to know: semi-literate redneck kids, sadistic drill sergeants and gung-ho patriotic southern officers, who talk military jargon. They say things like “outstanding” and “listen up,” and call people “individuals.” If you’ve never been in the American military you can’t imagine how brutal and small-minded it is, how far their agenda varies from your own, just how alien you find both their style and their content. And to what extent they’ve got your very life in their hands, every day, every hour. I cherish the friends I made in the Army, though one of them suffocated his baby daughter with a pillow when his wife won custody.
Three Months in High Places
I loved the Rockies. I was 25 years old and they were the first mountains I had ever seen. I had graduated from college, worked in PR for a year and spent almost two years in the Army. It was overtime for me to meet a mountain. I only lived on the high side of Colorado a total of about three months but it was great. The first month and a half I spent sleeping in a wall tent and working as a laborer on an exploratory drilling crew in the San Juan Mountains at altitudes between 12,500 and 14,000 feet. There they were prospecting for gold, silver and lead. At least that’s what they told us. They could have been looking for uranium for all we knew. I got a lead on the job while I was hitch-hiking from Pueblo, Colorado to the Oregon coast. A guy in a pickup with a rifle in the rear window stopped for me and I asked him what he did. “I’m a miner and a driller,” he said and spent the next couple of hours describing to me the life and high times of a core driller. “Sounds interesting.” I said, “Do you think I could get a job there?” He gave me his boss’s phone number. “I’ll tell him about you. Call him after August 15 and see what he has to say.”
That left me time to get to Oregon and spend a couple of days with my friends Jad Asfeld and Sam Bush. On the way I stopped at the Rocky Mountain News office in Denver and left them on spec a little advance story and roll of film I had shot on the upcoming state fair in Pueblo. Months later my mother forwarded to me in Spain their ten-dollar check.
I had never seen the Pacific before and as soon as I arrived at Sam’s parents’ summer house on the coast we smoked a joint and made our way down a magical path to a little beach in a cove. We wound up swimming in the midst of a pride of sea lions. No, they don’t bite. Sam said they would protect you from a shark attack.
I phoned the drilling company boss from Santa Monica, California. He said, “If you can be here in three days you’ve got a job.” I’d been staying for a couple of days with my friend, Bill Weiner, who was selling used cars while waiting for law school to start, and he drove me to the nearest expressway ramp. A huge truck with a tiny little driver stopped almost immediately and took me as far as Phoenix. As we passed through El Centro, California (which I just discovered is the cover girl for the Encyclopedia of Forlorn Places) he said, “Roll down your window and stick your arm out.” It was like putting my hand into an oven. It wasn’t till the following summer in Spain that I experienced that kind of heat again–and every summer since.
I had good luck hitching between Phoenix and Silverton, Colorado, and made the three-day deadline to get the job on the drilling crew. There were only two ways to get up to the camp, by helicopter or on horseback. I opted to fly. I had one of my Nikons with me and made some aerial shots of the mountain and the camp. My other camera was waiting for me to redeem it from a pawn shop in Portland, Oregon, which I did as soon as I collected my first paycheck. Probably the most worthwhile time I had on the mountain was staying up at the camp by myself. Someone had to stay there while the rest of the crew had a week off, so I offered. I had never spent a day by myself, let alone a week. I don’t recall doing any serious thinking about the future. I just read books and took the horses for rides down below the tree line.
The first snow at the beginning of October obliged us to pack up the camp and move out, so I found myself in a room in Silverton’s only hotel, above a real live swinging-door saloon, with a pocket full of money, some new boots, a red flannel shirt, and a determination to change my life. What more could a mannish boy wish for? Did that week alone up on the mountain help me decide to leave the country? Probably. A month later I was gone.
Read more rantings in my ebook, The Turncoat Chronicles.
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