Monday, July 23, 2007

The Festival Season

My wife and I spent this past weekend at the Starbelly Jam music festival in Crawford Bay, B.C. Crawford Bay is across Kootenay Lake from where we live. You catch the ferry, the big Osprey 2000 or the much smaller Balfour, at Balfour (two miles from our house), and cross the lake to Kootenay Bay. It's a pleasant little voyage of some three miles ("The longest free ferry ride in the world!") and takes about forty minutes. This time of year the line of vehicles at both ferry landings is long, and you often endure a two-ferry wait. When there's something like the Starbelly Jam going on, it can be a three-ferry wait, as long as the usual wait down on the coast to cross from Vancouver to Vancouver Island. What helps is that, with only the Osprey running at night and big lines of waiting cars on both shores, the captain sometimes opens the boat's throttle, cutting the crossing time in half, to twenty minutes or less.

This is the season for festivals -- mostly music festivals -- throughout North America, if not in Europe and the Northern Hemisphere generally. They seem to have started (I don't think they existed when I was a youth in the 1950s) in the 1960s with the Monterey Pop festival in 1967, which was also the year of the Summer of Love in San Francisco (and the summer of the race riot in Detroit, during which I was a mail carrier in the inner city) and reached their zenith with Woodstock in 1969. In between those two events, and for a while afterwards there were many lesser events called Love-Ins or Be-Ins, here and there, where hippies, semi-hippies, bikers, college students -- Sixties youth, in short, disaffected and otherwise, being young together -- gathered to smoke dope, make out, and listen to the funky good music of the era.

Here in the Kootenays of British Columbia, as elsewhere, I'm sure, such festivals remain alive and well, drawing old and new hippies, ex-hippies (like ourselves, I suppose), and just folks, though I must say they've become rather less wild, more controlled, than they used to be. At Starbelly this weekend I saw a beautiful young woman nurse her baby, then unabashedly leave her shirt off while her male partner gave her a haircut. Nobody seemed to notice; or rather, people noticed, as I did, and accepted (and perhaps secretly applauded) it as part of the scene. It harked back to the Flower Power 1960s, but had this been sometime between 1967 and 1971 or so, there would have been more than one topless young woman in the crowd, many of them lined up and swaying in front of the bandstand. The Sixties, one remembers, weren't only political; they were sexy.

It occurs to me now that the Sixties never died, and in fact are enjoying a revival as Iraq becomes every bit as messy and controversial as Vietnam was and we face the undeniable evidence (though deniable still to world leaders and the profit-mad corporations they serve) of Global Warming.

More than ever, it seems to me, Dickens's opening sentence in A Tale of Two Cities applies: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . ."

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Aspirations IV

Yet another apprentice story, also eventually published in that littlest of "little" magazines The Archer. Another early example of my writing, as a rank beginner, about the things I knew.


Everywhere there was dust. It hung in the air like gray fog, under a hot sun that was like a gray plate in the sky. Ma could not hang her wash outside on the line stretched between the trees on our lawn because of the dust raised by cars passing by on the gravel road. The trees all along the road were gray, and the corn was dry and brittle in the field in front of the house and the grass in the cow pasture below the barn was brown. There were growing cracks in the ground. Standing on the porch, looking out over our fields and pasture to the height of land a quarter mile away, what you saw was a landscape like in a black-and-white movie. Pa and I looked out from the porch every day. Dinner eaten, we would step onto the porch and see the land dying before our eyes, every day a little more.

Today was even hotter than usual, and windy, the air filled with dust. A car roared by and the heavy cloud swirling up behind it caught the wind and raced across the fields. It seemed the world was ending.

"Two months," Pa said. "Almost two months without a sprinkle."

We stood on the porch, hating the wind and the dust and the heat.

"We’ll have to buy hay this winter," he told me. "Our second-crop alfalfa is burned up."

"Two whole months," I said. "Jeese."

"Aren’t you going to Martinsville this afternoon?" Ma called from the kitchen.

"Yeah, I suppose so," Pa answered.

"Well, get two loaves of white bread, and—oh, I might as well write it down. You’ll forget."

She came out on the porch with a slip of paper. She handed it to Pa, and he stuck it inside his shirt pocket. He turned to me. His voice was low and toneless.

"Get the mower hitched up and cut the alfalfa on the flat. Cut it close. Try to get some hay out of it."

I nodded.

Pa walked across the brown and dying lawn, got into our almost-new, ‘49 Chev, and drove out of the yard and down the road, dust rising and sweeping away across the fields.

I walked across the yard to the machine shed, hating the wind that pushed against me and tore at my eardrums. I ground my teeth and felt the tiny hard particles in my mouth.

Inside there was shelter from the wind, but it buffeted the walls and caused the sliding door to bang in a steady rhythm. I greased the mower. Finished, I drove the tractor around from the other shed and hitched the mower to the drawbar. Then I eased the tractor and mower slowly outside and around to our bulk gas tank, where I filled the tractor and checked the oil and water. When I walked to the barn for a pair of pliers, I noticed the wind had subsided. The cows were in the yard, as they had been all day for many days now, lying there and staring patiently out at the brown pasture, not eating, looking gaunt and tired, their udders small and shriveled. No milk again tonight, I thought.

I took a long drink at the pump house, swishing the water around in my mouth till it grew warm, then spitting it out and taking another, this time gulping it down. The metal seat was hard and gritty as I put the tractor in road gear, opened the throttle, and drove fast out of the yard. The dust rose all around me, and I stood up, squinting through the haze.

Where the height of land leveled off, I turned into the hayfield. It lay on the flat top of the height of land, along the eastern edge of our farm.

The wind had almost died. The sun went behind clouds, but there was no relief from the heat. Sweating, I lowered the sickle blade and checked it. The sky took on a yellowish tinge. The earth seemed to hold its breath.

For almost an hour I cut alfalfa. The tractor hummed monotonously, the mower’s sickle blade clacked back and forth, and I went round and round the field, each circle smaller than the last. Suddenly the blade hit something and jammed. I stopped the tractor, backed up a little, then stepped down to clear the bar. I had run into a tuft of dirt jutting up too far for the bar to clear it, and one of the sickle blades was bent, a rivet snapped. I went to the tool box on the drawbar for a hammer and chisel, and I was pounding and swearing quietly, trying to snap the remaining rivet so I could remove the damaged blade and replace it, when I looked up and saw what was coming.

It was a huge black thunderhead, roiling in from the southwest. A wild excitement took hold of me.

That cloud could hold a tornado, I knew, but I laughed and heaved the mower blade into the raised position and secured it. Then I jumped up to the tractor seat and looked back and saw that the church steeple in Martinsville, three miles away, was blotted out. The storm was sweeping toward me, a driving column moving fast. You saw a stand of trees with that dark column approaching from behind, then the trees disappeared and the thing was coming—a wall as high as the sky.

I drove out of the field in road gear, standing to keep from bouncing off the seat. On the road I kept weaving the tractor back and forth, from one shoulder to the other. I yelled and laughed at the same time. There was a delightful thickening in my throat and I could not keep still. I kept looking back at the oncoming darkness, glancing at the road in snatches, watching the column pursue me with a crazy, almost unbearable tightness. It looked as though it would strike before I reached home.

I was turning into the driveway when it hit. There was a rush of cold, damp wind, then sudden, blinding rain. Sudden, blinding, beautiful rain.

I skidded around to the left and burst inside the shed, almost going through the wall and out the other side. I switched the engine off and started for the house, yelling and laughing. When I reached the porch my clothes were heavy and clinging. Still laughing crazily, I pulled off my shoes, then ran back into the rain. The first sudden rush had ceased, and now there remained a steady downpour. I held my face to the sky, feeling the sting and laughing.

Pa drove into the yard, grinning through the side window of the car. He stopped before the house and got out and in a moment was soaked. He came up on the lawn, still grinning. He walked across the lawn, stopping often to gaze out over the fields, keeping that grin on his face. I could hear Ma yelling at us to come in before we caught cold. Then I heard her laugh and she came out and joined us.

We stood there in the rain a long time. It stopped, finally, and everything seemed to come to life. The lawn turned green before our eyes. The sparrows in the trees back of the house were chattering in a shrill volume.

"You can forget about cutting the rest of that hay for a couple days," Pa told me.

"Yuh," I said, smiling. I could not stop smiling.

"We’ll get some hay yet, Missus Miller." He grinned again and gave Ma a pinch.

"Feeling your oats already, huh?" Ma said.

"You bet." Pa laughed and pinched her again. He turned to me.

"C'mon, Carl. Let’s get those chores done early for a change." Then, to Ma again, "We’re going out tonight, Missus Miller."


"I donno. Out to eat, to a show maybe. Just be ready when I come up from the milking." He motioned to me and we started down toward the barn.

That night it rained once more. The folks went out and I stayed home, allowing them, without realizing it then, that time together. I fixed my own supper, then went to bed early and lay awake, the covers pulled up to my chin, listening to the drops of rain hit the roof and roll down the incline to splatter softly on the ground beside the house. I’d forgotten how nice that sounded. I guess it put me to sleep finally.


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Aspirations III

For the record, this is one of my earliest stories, written in my off-duty hours as a 20-year-old U.S. Navy sailor stationed in Hawaii. Specifically, I was a Navy journalist, working in the Public Information Office at the headquarters of ComSubPac (Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet), on the subase in Pearl Harbor, which gave me access to the office at night and on weekends when I wasn't standing watches on the "quarterdeck" of the headquarters building every fourth night (four hours on, eight off, like at sea), which was part of the routine at SubPac. I was on a four-year enlistment in the Navy (four seemed to be the ruling number), and SubPac was my first duty station, where, in my spare time, I was setting out to become another Jack London or Ernest Hemingway. As Hemingway had done, I was starting out by writing as simply and directly as I could -- writing like Hemingway, in short.

Incredibly, this little story was eventually published, in an obscure, extremely "little" magazine called The Archer.


Gladys was next. She got up in front of the room and we all leaned back expectantly, waiting for the new girl to speak. She was the third person to give their speech, and so far the class had gone well. Miss Anderson was sitting on the edge of her desk, smiling at Gladys. Gladys looked scared.

"Ahhh . . . " Gladys said.

Miss Anderson smiled encouragement. The class waited.

"This is my first speech. I can’t remember anything."

"Did you prepare your speech?" Miss Anderson asked.

"Yes, but—"

"Well, then. Don’t be frightened. Remember to look at your audience and stand still and you’ll do fine."

She looked into our faces, eyes wide and frightened, sweeping the room, staring right at you so you had to turn away.

She was a big-boned girl, with big features. Her nose was large and her chin firm and square, with hair long and straight and clipped in bangs across her forehead. The whole face was coarse, like a man’s. And her body was a man’s body; the muscles stood out from her arms and her legs were thick and stout. "There’s a girl for you, Tommy," Jack had said to me, her first day at school.

"When I was a little girl my mother used to tell me . . . Ahhh . . . She used to say to me . . . Ahhh . . . and my father would always get mad and— "

"Stand still, Gladys," Miss Anderson said.

"Ahhh . . . "

Her face began working. She looked wildly about. She looked over at Miss Anderson and Miss Anderson smiled. She kept looking at us, looking through us, and everyone held their head down and glanced sideways at each other and grinned.

Miss Anderson was frowning now.

Gladys looked ready to cry.

The room was still. No one whispered or laughed, but they kept their heads down and looked sideways at each other and grinned. No one looked at Gladys.

"Ahhh . . . " said Gladys.

The room was heavy. A breeze drifted in through the two open windows in back of the room, smelling of spring and of the outside, lifting a paper from someone’s desk and clapping it down on the floor. Miss Anderson said nothing. The class continued to look down at their desks, but for a long time now there had been no grinning. I found myself reading the names etched in the wood before me: Phil. Jerry. Jo Anne. Cal & Janey. Once or twice I looked up, but then quickly returned to the names on the desk. I kept my head down, knowing the others were doing the same, wanting to look into her face, into the faces of those around me, wanting yet wanting not to, playing with my fingers and waiting. Finally a student dropped his pencil.

"Maybe you’d better sit down, Gladys," Miss Anderson told her.

Suddenly Gladys burst out crying.

"I knew it! I knew it this morning!" she sobbed.

The new girl returned to her seat and laid her head in her arms and continued to sob. Everyone looked at her and then at each other and then at Miss Anderson.

Miss Anderson called somebody else, and the class looked at him hopefully. Presently Gladys stopped crying but remained with her head cradled in her arms. Every little while someone would look over at her, unsmiling, then quickly turn back to the speaker.

The bell rang and we all rose and began filing out of the room. Miss Anderson went over to Gladys and laid her hand on the girl’s shoulder, talking softly.

The hall was airy and full of high school students, rushing past to their lockers. And there was nothing to do but join them.


Saturday, July 14, 2007

Aspirations II

Here's another of my early, unpublished stories. You'll see it owes a huge debt to Ernest Hemingway. In fact, it's my attempt at something like "Hills Like White Elephants," his bitter little story about a couple's estrangement in romantic surroundings. The sensibility in his story is so youthfully romantic, as it is in mine.


The Alcove had always been a good place to meet because it was close to his paper and close to the office of her magazine. It was close to everything they knew between the hours of nine and five, but now it was after six and the last light was lovely against the tall apartment buildings that rose like twin towers of Babel on the river front. She had arrived late, and now she pushed at her hair and stared at passers-by on the sidewalk as she waited for her beer.

She was beautiful, he reminded himself, more beautiful than any of the other young women in this sidewalk bar on this summer evening. Her hair was short and curled prettily into the corners of her eyes. Her skirt too was stylishly short and her legs, in seamless stockings, were extremely fine. The man, who sat with his beer in front of him, was himself as sleek, as sharp-looking as any other man here in his buttoned-down collar, his thin tie, and his tailored suit.

"You know, I’ll kind of miss this place," the girl said. She took a deep breath and folded her hands on the table. "Because, of course, I won’t be coming here after you’re gone."

"Why not?" he wondered.

"Oh, you know. Too many memories."


Her beer arrived. She sipped at it and stared at the twin towers.

"We’ve watched them go up, haven’t we," she said. "A year."

"Yup," he said, "a year. I hated to see them finish."

"Oh, they’re not quite finished," she said.

He caught the waiter’s eye and raised a finger. "Want another?"

"Not yet."

The waiter brought him another beer. He poured some into his glass and drank it off. Then he poured the rest and finished it.

"How many is that, Eddie?"



"All right, four. No more."

"You’ve certainly taken to drinking since we met."

"I guess I have."

She picked up her purse and began playing with the leather handle, twisting and pulling at it.

"Your stuff all packed?"

"Yeah. I leave at eight. Have to rise early."

"That’ll kill you." She smiled.

"Naw. I’ll be starting my travels," he told her. "I’ll be excited."

"Where will you go first?"

"London. There’s a place, a pub, somewhere in London that I heard about from somebody. Called The World’s End. I like the sound of that. I’m going to look for it. After that . . ."

"Sounds lonely," she said. "A lonely quest."

"Come with me. It won’t be lonely then."

"You know I can’t."

"I know."

He lifted his eyes to the twin towers and saw the evening light seeming to burn at the tops of them. Once he had been stirred by the sight of the sun against the high buildings of this city, and that first cold beer at the end of the working day, and by this girl, who finally was as exhausting as the rest of his life here. It was all exhausting. Everything was exhausting, but now, after a year and a half of it, he was leaving. He was leaving the whole white-collar, nine-to-five scene, that stultifying, soul-destroying wad of commitment and responsibility you were asked to swallow when you worked as a reporter for "the world’s greatest newspaper" (by its own admission, he and his fellow reporters always added, which always got a laugh), a paper whose chief concern, finally, was not to report the news but to maintain the status quo, to attract advertisers, to make money. He was done with that, done with wearing a buttoned-down collar and knotted tie that was like a noose around his neck. He was finished, too, with that midnight anguish when, after too much drink and empty conversation, in an upsurge of false hope, he’d abruptly, almost frantically, feel the need to make up for lost time, to stop wasting time, to begin again, now, this instant, when really there was nothing to do but stop drinking and take the El home to bed so that you could get up in the morning and go back to work. But he was through with it now. He was through with the white collar. No more white collars, or rather he could wear a white collar now, or a blue collar, or no collar at all, because now he was free.

He raised a finger.

"Don’t have another. Please."

"Yes," he said. "Just one more."

"You’re drinking yourself into a breakdown."

"Precisely. Going all the way. To the world’s end!" he cried and raised his empty glass to the glory of the twin towers.

"I love you," he told her. "I love you, Susan, do you believe that? But I’ve got to leave."

She looked away.

"Come with, why don’t you."

"The only reason you offer that—for the second time, by the way—is that you know, you know, I can’t possibly."

Of course. She had an invalid mother. Wasn’t that convenient? Her mother was a nice-enough old lady, uncomplaining but virtually helpless, and of course demanding in her nice way. Susan had an older married sister and a well-off married brother, but she, the youngest and unmarried, had been delegated, it seemed, to look after their mother. The entrapment of that. That loving, dutiful entrapment. It was Eddie’s warning not to get involved. But then he had.

"You could leave her," he told Susan, after their first time together. It was upstairs in her mother’s house, with her mother asleep (they hoped) downstairs. "Let your busy sister and her asshole husband or your rich brother and his smug wife take over now. "We could go away," he told her.

Now he said again, "You could leave your mother. Let your brother or sister take a turn."

"We’ve been over that,"she said. "And you’re drunk. Our last night together, and you’re drunk."

"I’m sorry, baby, I really am." He really was. "I’m so sorry. But I have to get out of here. I hate this goddamn town."

"You don’t hate it."

"No, that’s the trouble. I really love it. I love you."

He looked fervently at her, to show how much he loved her, and abruptly she leaned toward him across the table, her face intense, her eyes shiny.

"I’ll go then," she said.


"I’ll go with you."

"No you won’t."

"I will, I will," she told him.

"What about your mother?"

"I’ll let somebody else take care of her. I want my own life," she said. "I want a life with you."

"You mean it?"

"Yes. Yes," she said.

Her hand was gripping his. He took a swig of his beer. It might have been the beer, it might have been nervous exhaustion, it might have been the light gleaming golden on the twin towers, on those proud, cold, elegant monuments to something or other, but whatever it was, he was crying. Okay, maybe not crying exactly, but there were tears in his eyes, as there were in hers, and he put down his beer and ran his hand up the firm softness of her arm.

"Oh, Susan," he said, "sweet Susan. You can’t, you know you can’t. You leave your mother and you’re selfish goddamn brother and sister will put her in a Home. Won’t they? You can’t leave your mother any more than I could leave mine, if I was in your situation." That was a guess; he wasn’t sure what he’d do in her situation. "She needs you, after all, we both know she needs you," he told her. "You have to stay. And I have to leave, don’t you see?"

"Yeah, I see." She reached over and touched his face.

"Christ," he said. "You’re so beautiful."

"Don’t go," she pleaded. "You can find another job. We’ll get married."

"No," he said. "I don’t want another job, and I don’t want to marry you—not the way things are. I’m not worthy of you," he told her.


She dropped her hand. He drained his beer. He was trying to remember something, something he’d read sometime ago. Then it came to him.

"‘A system of restless wandering . . . ‘" he quoted. He stared hard at his empty glass. "'Detachment . . . a means of passing through life without suffering and almost without a single care . . . invulnerable because elusive.’"

"What’s that?" she asked.

"Conrad. Wrote about exile. That’s me, I guess. An exile."

"You filthy romantic," she said. "Would you excuse me a minute? I have to pee."

She rose with her purse in one hand and with the other smoothed the front of her short skirt. Her exciting body, her tough, lovely face: it was all there in front of him and his belly contracted, suddenly, with hunger for her.

"We going to your place later? Please," he said.

We’ll talk about it when I get back."

But fifteen minutes later she was not back, and at length he realized she might never come back. She must be waiting it out in the ladies room, or maybe she’d slipped out when he wasn’t looking.

"Waiter!" he called.

The waiter came over. He was smiling.

"Another round for the gentleman and his lady?"

"No, thanks. The check, please."

The waiter began writing out the check and the man looked over at the door marked Ladies. He felt suddenly fiercely proud of the girl and was sure now that he loved her. He loved her, and yet he was so relieved, so grateful to her for helping him, in this way, to end it.

"Would you tell the lady, if you see her," he said brightly, thinking of her and how much he loved her, "that I couldn’t wait? And tell her it was all my fault."

Then he paid the check and walked away down the sidewalk. At the corner he stopped and turned around. If she comes out now, he thought, if she comes out by the time I count to ten, I’ll go back. If she comes out by the time I count to twenty. He counted to thirty, to forty, but she didn’t come out and he didn’t go back.

Finally, he turned the corner and it was all behind him.


Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Aspirations I

This is the first of a series of early stories of mine that never made it into print. So I'm posting them here to get them out, anyway, into cyber space.


The woods were a green wall beyond the farm, the wild edge of Carl's world. It was where the crows lived, where they roosted at night and set out from on their raids of farmers’ fields every morning. Carl knew to stay out of the woods – You'll get lost! – but he was with his father now and Oscar. His father carried his shotgun.

"Corn's comin' along," Oscar said in his lilting, resonant voice that was like the mouth organ he played.

"Yup," Carl's father said; his voice was thinner than Oscar's, quick and excited, "if the crows don't get it." He pointed his gun at the sky. "Think it's high enough yet to cultivate?"

"No-o," Oscar said. "The shovels'd bury it still."

They were crossing a field still soft from spring planting, stepping over the corn rows, the new plants so intensely green they seemed to glow against the black soil. There were tracks in the soil that Oscar pointed out, the toed prints of crows and pheasants, little hand prints of raccoons, and a line of cloven hoof prints, like a heifer’s, Carl thought. "Deer, by golly," Oscar said. "I thought they was all hunted out."

Carl looked back. The farm was a kind of island among the rolling fields. There was the circle of buildings around the yard and the metal windmill poking up, its silvery blades arrested above the shade trees around the house. He saw the cows, strung out from the barnyard, heading for pasture after the milking. It was a calm, early summer evening, still light at eight o’clock.

"Keep up!" Carl's father called. The men had walked on, and Carl ran to catch up with them.

They reached the woods. There was an absolute division here between the thick growth of trees and the open field, as if the field of young corn were a dark, weedy pond and the trees grew heavily down to the water. His father said, "Watch your eyes, Carl," and the men pushed through the curtain of leaves. Carl followed, and found himself in another world.

. It was hushed and contained, secret, like the inside of an empty building, empty and yet alive. The trees stood like columns, not crowded together as they appeared from outside but spaced, with park-like regularity, the big trunks going up and up to the spreading branches and the roof of leaves. There was a concentrated smell of damp earth and moldering vegetation.

"Say, this looks like virgin forest," his father said.

"Ya," Oscar said. " Larue, he left it be. This here was his sugar grove."

"Yeah, a lot of the French around here made maple syrup, I guess. Like back in Quebec."

"Syrup and sugar both," Oscar said. He looked down at Carl. "You ever taste real maple sugar, Carlie? It's the sweetest candy there is."

Carl tried to imagine the kind of candy could come from trees. Oscar said, "Lucien, he still tapped maples, back when I started work for'm. That pasture where the crick runs, below the Martin barn? That was all maple trees once."

"What happened?"

"Well, Lucien, he wanted his first car, you know, that old Dodge sitting out back of his corn crib now. Got the money for it by selling off his maple trees, for lumber."

"He would," his father snorted. "The quick buck!"

Carl realized, uneasily, that they were talking about his grandfather. Grandpa Martin with his cracking, smoker’s laugh and his big nose peppered with blackheads. The merriment in his eyes until Grandma scolded him for sneaking uptown to the tavern.

"Ya, well Lucien was no farmer," Oscar said. "None of the Martin boys was, not like old Charles. He owned an entire section at one time, did you know that? Give his boys each a farm when they got married, but they all pissed what they had away. Lucien, you know, got the home place."

"Yeah, and now that's pissed away," Carl's father said. "Christ. Why couldn’t I have inherited a farm? His father grinned at his hired man. "Whattaya think, Oscar? I make a farmer?"

Oscar looked carefully at Carl’s father. "Ya-a," he said. "You ain't afraida work, I’d say, and you seem to know how to manage."

Carl's father grinned once more and sniffed the air. They were deep in the woods now, walking among the quiet trees. The ground was soft with rotting leaves, crunchy with fallen twigs. Spindly seedlings brushed Carl’s face as he passed, and there were trees and fallen logs with half-circles of cork-like growth on them, like the growths on a horse’s legs – what his mother called "artist’s easel." The deer flies bit savagely at him. He kept snagging his face on invisible spider webs.

"Look here," Oscar told Carl. He showed him the moss on a tree, a smudge of dull green on the trunk. "The moss always grows on the north side," Oscar said. "You know where north is and you can find your way out of the woods."

Carl wondered how that applied – how knowing where north was could tell you which way to go.
"Hey," his father said. "Here's an old fence."

"Ya," Oscar said. "That used to be your line – Larue's old line – till he bought up this next piece to make your eighty."

Then Carl saw the rusted barbed wires draped like vines between the trees, and how they passed right through the trees as if growing from them.

"You see that, Carlie?" Oscar said. "The trees grow over wire like that, like scar tissue."

His father tugged at the wire. "When ya think that fence was put up, Oscar?"

"Oh, maybe thirty years ago," Oscar said.

"Now that was the time to go farming," said Carl's father. "Well no, I suppose the best time was back when the Martins first came here from Canada."

"It was all woods," Oscar told him. "Like this. Or brush or grass prairie that a plow couldn't turn over in those days. Not to mention the sloughs around the lakes that were only good for the wild hay you could get off'm. When my grandfolks first come here from Norway, all they did for a coupla years was clear."

"Yah, but dammit, Oscar. Goddamn it, I'd like to of been here when this country was just opening up."

"Plagues of grasshoppers," Oscar went on. "Grass fires. All kinds of sickness. People went crazy. Then too in those early days there was still the Indians to worry about."

"That's right! You ever hear Lucien's story about how, during the Sioux Uprising, I think it was, the Martins and their neighbors all packed up and made for Fort Snelling and his mother — she was a little girl then — fell out of the wagon and broke her arm? Just think." Carl's father looked happily around him. "These big old trees must've been standing here when all that happened."

"Ya," Oscar said. "A man should keep his eyes peeled. You can still find old arrowheads, things like that."

"Daddy ..."

"Well," his father said, "my granddad was a pioneer. On my mother's side. Homesteaded in Dakota Territory and ran a dray line out of Sisseton. Then he moved up to Saskatchewan, when that country was just opening up. I was born up there. Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. My dad was a CPR engineer! I barely remember him, though. He was killed in a train wreck when I was younger than Carl here."

Carl knew that story. There was an old, gilt-framed photograph of the grandfather he never knew on the wall in his folks' bedroom. His fading likeness grinned from the seat of a wagon on a flat prairie. His long-barrelled "goose gun" lay across his lap, and he held the reins of a team of horses whose heads didn’t show in the picture. He looked vaguely like Carl's father. Will Miller. He was a mighty hunter, Carl's father said, a great wing shot.

"So how'd you wind up down here?" Oscar asked.

"Come down looking for work when I was sixteen. Hell, I rode the rails like you did, Oscar!
Wound up in Minneapolis and took any job I could get. I mowed lawns, I caddied at country clubs. Pumped gas. Then I met Carl's ma and started going out to the Martin farm and I thought, hell, why not try farming? I could see Lucien was letting his place go, and I might have taken it over, but I wanted my own place. I’ll say this for old Lucien, though. He vouched for me at the Martinsville bank so I could get a loan."

"Then I come back from Kansas and now here I am working for you instead of the Martins."
"That's right! You might say I inherited you, Oscar."

"Daddy ..."


His father was striding ahead now, jaunty, his shotgun in the crook of his arm. His black hair shone under the trees. Oscar followed, his graying, sandy hair sticking out of his cap, stooped yet still taller than Carl's father.

"Daddy ..."

"What, I said."

"There still ... Indians in here?"

The two men stopped and grinned at each other. Oscar said, "No, Carlie. The Indians're are all gone now."

"Where'd they go?"

Oscar looked at Carl's father. His father said, "They're on what they call reservations now, Carl. Those are places set aside for them where they can hunt and fish all year around, just like they used to."

"Ya, " Oscar added, "and they don't even need a license, like we do."

"How come?"

Oscar looked at Carl's father again, and his father said, "That's a long story, Carl. Maybe you'll learn about it in school."

"But how come Indians don't live here anymore?"

"Because. They had to move. They couldn't live here after people like us came here and settled."
"How come?"

"Because." His father took a breath. "The Indians lived different from us. They didn’t use the land like we do. They mostly just lived off it. Oh, they raised corn, I guess. But they didn’t clear the woods and plow up the soil and make farms and towns, like we did. You might say the Indians lived wild, and we live tame, Carl." He turned to his hired man. "Ain’t that about it, Oscar? Maybe the Indians had the right idea."

Oscar grunted. Carl thought about the Indians living wild in the woods, in these woods, and felt scared and excited.



"But can't I ever see a Indian?"

"Sure. We'll go up to Red Lake sometime, to the reservation."

"You won't have to go that far," Oscar commented. "There's plenty on Washington Avenue."

"Where's Washington Avenue?" Carl asked.

"In Minneapolis," his father said. "We'll go there, too, sometime, though the Indians in Minneapolis ain't like the Indians we're talking about."

"What kind are they?"

"The kind that hunt bottles," Oscar said.

"What?" Carl said.

"That's enough questions," his father said. "And Oscar, we better not go into that." He lowered his voice. "We better be quiet now. The crows'll be coming."

It was getting dark in the woods. Carl knelt between Oscar's knees, in the warm pocket of his smells – manly smells of sweat and tobacco and the barn – while his father crouched beside them with his shotgun. They were all crouched in the hole where a big tree had uprooted. Above, through the break where the tree had stood, was the deepening sky.

Oscar slapped a mosquito. The deer flies circled their heads and they all swatted at them.
"Bugs ain't too bad yet," said Oscar. "Wait'll July."

A bird called, sweetly trilling among the trees. Then a squirrel chattered. Carl saw it, crouched on a branch, its jerking tail, its tensed little body.

His father pushed a shell into his gun. He worked the lever on the chamber, then loaded more of the fat shells into the magazine. Then he aimed at the trees. "C'mon, crows," he said. "I'm waitin'."

"That a Browning?" Oscar asked.

"Damn right. Twelve-gauge Browning automatic. Best shotgun in the world." His father handed the gun to Oscar. "Made in Belgium. I bought that gun when I was nineteen years old. Took all my savings."

Oscar held the gun up and Carl saw its beauty. He saw the scrollwork etched into the blued metal above the trigger guard, and the walnut stock, and the rubber cushion on the butt. The gun's kick, his father said, would knock the snot out of Carl's nose. His father kept his gun in its sheath in the closet of the folks’ bedroom, and Carl was never to touch it. The sheath itself was beautiful, soft buckskin lined with rawhide.

Oscar handed the gun back to Carl's father. "Sittin' in this hole reminds me of the war," he said. The first one."

"Yeah, you were in it, weren't you, Oscar. Think we'll get in this one?"


"Well, I just hope I don't get drafted. I shouldn't. I'm thirty now and on a farm and I got a family."

"They might draft me," the hired man said dully.

"Naw. You're way too old, Oscar! How old are you, anyway?"

"I'm fifty."

"You're all right then. Anyway, another war should pull us out of the Depression. The price of milk could go up. We could make some money!"

People talked of the war now. It was like a storm, away off across the ocean somewhere, maybe heading their way.

"Daddy ..."

"Quiet now. I hear'm."

At first Carl heard nothing, just a rush of wind through the treetops and then a squeaking noise, kind of spooky. Oscar whispered, "That's the trees rubbing together, Carlie. Listen."

Carl strained to listen. It was like the creaking in an empty house or a ticking clock surrounded by silence.

"There," Carl's father said. "Hear'm?"

Carl strained to hear. Then he tried to see the crows, as he saw them most evenings from the farm, that black, undulating line of them, flapping toward the woods where Carl was now. But he only saw the sky, and the yellowing clouds, through the break in the trees.

Then: CAW! Sharp and alarmed. Then a rush of calls, CAW! CAW! CAW! CAW! and dark shapes above the trees, whistling wingbeats and wheeling flight, and his father raising his gun and BANG, a crow crashed through the leafy branches, then BANG BANG, and BANG, and another and then another crow broke through the leaves overhead and bounced when they hit the ground. His father scrambled out of the hole and aimed up through the trees. BANG, and Carl saw the smoking shell eject from the gun. Then the crows were gone. Carl's ears were ringing. And faintly, like sprinkling rain, the spent shot fell back through the leaves.

His father was jubilant. "Christ. You see me hit those last two, Oscar? It was like shooting geese!"

Carl ran to where a crow had fallen. It lay crumpled among the dead leaves with its head up, following Carl with a furious eye. Its beak was open. It was panting.

"Watch out for the beak!" Carl's father called.

Carl reached down and the crow clamped its beak over one of his fingers. "Ouch!" he said, more startled than hurt. But when he jerked his hand away, the crow hung on so that Carl lifted it from the ground. "Ouuuu!" he cried, the crow hanging from his finger. Ouuuuuuu!"

Carl's father strode up. He squeezed the crow's neck and its beak opened. Carl pulled his finger away. Then his father grasped the crow’s head, twirled its body, and the body dropped to the ground. There it jumped and flapped just like a headless chicken.

"Stop crying," his father said now. Then, softer, "Let's see your finger."

It was pinched and sore, but the skin wasn't broken. It was okay.

"That poor crow was just defending itself, Carl," his father told him. "It was being brave."

Oscar came over, swinging a crow by its legs. "Here, feel this one, Carlie. It's dead for sure."

The dead crow was floppy, still warm, in Carl's hands. All its strangeness, the black sheen of its feathers, its wicked beak, its closed, tiny eyelids – he held the wild, lifeless, now harmless thing in his hands and tried to fathom its strangeness, its mystery. Blood dripped from its open beak. You could see its pointed little tongue.

"Crows're smart, you know," Oscar said. "You catch a young one and slit its tongue, it'll learn to talk." He took the crow from Carl. "Ed, you wanna show this one to your missus?"

"Naw," Carl's father said. "Helen wouldn't appreciate it."

Then Oscar pulled a wing feather out and stuck it in Carl's hair. "Now you're like an Indian, Carlie."

But Carl's hair wasn’t long enough. The feather fell out and he picked it up. He put it in his shirt pocket.

Walking back through the dusky woods, they nearly collided with the old fence. "Watch out!" his father said. He handed his gun to Oscar. Then he lifted Carl over the fence. Finally they pushed out of the woods into the open field.

It was a relief stepping out into the open. The circle of farm buildings was like a fort across the corn field. The barn and the sheds were dark, but there were lights showing warmly in the house. That’s where Carl's mother was, and his little sisters. He’d been far, far away, it seemed, and gone a long, long time.

His father stopped and looked back at the wall of trees. "The land's fairly level in those woods," he said. We could maybe clear to Larue's old line and extend this field."

"That'd give you another eight, ten acres," Oscar said. He smiled down at Carl. "You wanna ride on my shoulders, Carlie?"

Carl looked up at Oscar, then over at his father. "No thanks," he said.

The dark woods stood behind them now. Carl thought, When we’re back at the farm they’ll still be out here. He wondered where the crows had gone. Would they ever come back?

He wished there were still Indians in the woods. He would see some, though, in Minneapolis or up at Red Lake.

He felt for the feather in his pocket. It was still there.


Tuesday, July 3, 2007

That Winter in London

In the gray November of 1963, I crossed the North Atlantic to England on a British freighter, the S.S. Bristol City, one of only five passengers on the ship. I'd boarded the ship in New York after a brief correspondence with the Bristol City Line and payment of the $154 one-way fare, and after quitting my job as feature editor of the National Bowlers Journal, in Chicago.

I'd discovered this adventurous way of escape, the winter before, while covering the annual American Bowling Congress tournament -- "72 pin-clashing days," held that year in snowy Buffalo, N.Y. -- for AP, UPI, and the 60 regional newspapers that subscribed to the magazine’s press service. The press room’s Western Union operator, a sweet, middle-aged spinster who regularly took trips on freighters, lent me her copy of Freighter Travel, an exciting little paperback that soon had me writing off to various shipping companies.

I was setting off now, with $1200 in savings, on something like Henry James's passionate, or D.H. Lawrence's savage, pilgrimage. James and Lawrence were my literary heroes then; their disparate lives, more than their disparate writings, alternately inspired me – though truth to tell my preferred model was Lawrence, whose sojourns in exotic places like Italy and Mexico, whose turbulent life with the lusty Frieda (never mind his lifelong struggle with ill health, the tuberculosis that killed him at age 44), was the stuff of dreams for the lonesome, horny young man I was then. Still, what I might have to settle for, I feared, was a latter-day version of James's sort of literary bachelorhood. That would be all right, I thought, so long as I achieved something of his success.

Of my fellow passengers on the Bristol City, three were composed of a plump, thirtyish, smart and very funny Marxist history professor, lately of Monteith College in Detroit, then an experimental branch of Wayne State University, currently unemployed; his attractive young wife, formerly his student; and his wife's younger still, equally attractive sister. The fourth was a chipper little Englishman from Crewe, returning home after the breakup of his marriage in the States. The Englishman and I shared a cabin. He was British working class, like Lawrence, I noted, while the ship's officers, with whom we shared meals at the captain's table, were definitely upper class, like the Anglicized Henry James. Their dry, merciless teasing of their fellow countryman was my introduction to the British class system. The poor chap's American car, for instance, part of our cargo, was a constant worry to him, and he was made to dash from the table one stormy evening when the officers impishly hinted it had broken loose in the hold.

We were at sea for ten days, wallowing through gale-driven waves all the way across to the Old World. Though an ex-Navy sailor, I got seasick. So did the other passengers, except for the younger sister, who never missed a meal. Presently we all had our sea legs and spent the remainder of the voyage quite pleasantly in the ship's lounge, reading, playing cards, talking about our lives. By the end of the voyage, we (that is, we fellow Americans) were intimate friends. Moreover, I was in love with the younger sister.
I was in love with her voice, its sweet alto. I was in love with her English-looking beauty, like the young Virginia Woolf’s; her shyness that was like my own, I thought. She was quietly intelligent, vaguely mysterious – there were depths in her I wanted to know. Still, she was far too young for me, not yet eighteen, while I was soon to turn twenty-nine. Besides, she was an inch or so taller than I was.

The evening before we disembarked, November 22, while steaming up the Bristol Channel, the awful news reached us over the ship's radio: President Kennedy has been shot. Then: The President is dead. The professor's reaction struck me as callous, almost gleeful: "This could mean revolution!" My own uncertain feelings were those of a bookish, apolitical, but essentially patriotic American. I was shocked by the fact that a man as important as the president of the United States had been murdered. Having absorbed a little of the professor's radical view of history, however, I imagined myself an exile now, one who, after leaving his flawed native land, looks back to see it in flames. With something like pleasant melancholy, I brooded on whether I would ever return.

The next morning, having docked at midnight in Avonmouth, the port for Bristol, we passengers were visited on the ship by Customs and Immigration officers, who inspected our luggage and interviewed us in the lounge. They were severe, it seemed to me, with the little Englishman, as if his expatriate years in the United States had been somehow a disloyalty to the Queen.

Questioning us Yanks, however, they were merely stiff and officious. After a few grave inquiries as to why we'd come to the United Kingdom and how long we intended to stay, they stamped our passports with three-month, renewable visas and allowed us to step ashore.

The Englishman said goodbye to us and headed north to Crewe. But we four, reluctant to separate just yet, explored Bristol together and then took a bus tour of Somerset, visiting Wells and Cheddar, among other places. We rode on top a double-decker through England's West Country with its rocky outcrops and enclosed little fields, its close little towns (at times the bus came near to scraping the eaves of medieval houses as it negotiated the narrow, crooked streets), and found it all wonderfully quaint to our American eyes. Everything we saw, the landscape, the buildings, seemed on a miniature scale compared to America. The phrase "tight little isle" came to me. This tightness included the masses of people that crowded all the towns and cities, and the droves of vehicles, odd-looking little cars, motorcycles, scooters, mopeds, which created incessant traffic jams and sent clouds of petrol fumes into the cold, drenched air.

After three days and back in Bristol, we boarded a train for London and there, outside Paddington Station, after three weeks of camaraderie and shared travel, I said goodbye to the professor and his wife and his wife's sweet younger sister. We promised to keep in touch, of course, to contact each other once we were settled, but I expected we'd all lose ourselves in the vastness of the great city and never see one another again. All at once I was alone, and already lonely, as I began my London winter.

I looked through newspaper classifieds and visited various parts of the city for their postings on neighborhood kiosks of places to rent. Most seemed too expensive, and those I viewed were extremely dismal; one especially, deep in the bowels of a sub-basement, invited suicide.

Within a couple of days, however, I found a tiny but adequate – and affordable – "flatlet" in South Kensington, an area within equal walking distance, I discovered, of richly hip Chelsea and somewhat grungy hip Earl's Court. Down the Old Brompton Road was an Underground station, where I could take "the tube" to Piccadilly Circus or, with transfers, to anywhere else in the city. I rented a typewriter, supplied myself with paper and envelopes, and settled in to write each morning and to explore the city each afternoon. I had James’s example, his first lonely days in London a century earlier, to inspire and sustain me.

As dark and wet November passed into even darker and wetter December, I played at being the expatriate writer in London. "The great grey Babylon," James had called it, and in my daily forays by tube or on foot – mostly on foot, armed with a map, and clad in a trench coat against London's penetrating damp – I searched out the places where James had lived in the city. His earliest abode, in Bolton Street near Piccadilly, no longer existed – indeed, the street itself seemed to have disappeared – but I found the location of his flat, identified by a plaque in front of a block of flats, at 34 De Vere Gardens, where James lived, obliquely across the street from Robert Browning, in the 1880s. It was said they occasionally waved to each other from their windows. Knowing such anecdotes, being on the scene, was intensely satisfying to me. It helped me to feel part of what they represented. It eased my loneliness.

And I was writing – at least in those first days, spurred on by my loneliness and James's productive example. I revised a couple of old stories and submitted them, unsuccessfully, to Stateside little magazines. I wrote a couple of new stories, immediate reactions to my new surroundings, and sent them to British publications, hoping by some miracle to crack that market. (I didn't, not then or ever.) I also, somewhat dutifully, forwarded the letters of introduction I had from my old boss in Chicago to managers of Brunswick Ltd. and AMF Ltd., affiliates of the American bowling firms, with requests for interviews as a journalist. I got my interviews, received tours of two or three of the new bowling centers in and outside London and, again somewhat dutifully, wrote a series of articles for my old magazine on "Bowling in Britain." The modest payments I received from the Bowlers Journal – plus a short stint writing publicity for AMF and being paid under the table – eased my anxiety about my thinning book of traveler's checks.

Freelance journalism, though, took time away from my serious writing; but then hadn't James himself boiled the pot with travel pieces, literary essays, book reviews? And wasn't I indeed (despite pub crawls in Soho and Earls Court, hanging out at my "local" or various coffee bars, in the vain hope of connecting with one of London’s "birds" in their short skirts and Avenger boots) becoming a literary bachelor like James, probably doomed, unlike Lawrence, to celibacy? James, therefore, must be my master; while Lawrence was a writer whose sensual experience would be forever, it seemed, beyond my yearning grasp.

Then, one particularly lonely evening in my boxlike room (I'd written a letter home, cheerfully disguising my homesickness, and was now disclosing my true feelings in my journal), the phone rang in the hall outside my door. It was the professor, inviting me to dinner. They'd found a place in Camberwell, across the Thames from me in southeast London, and would I come?

That was the first of many such invitations. I became a regular guest and then a hanger-on of the professor and the two sisters (the professor called me, an ex-Minnesota farm boy, "Huck Finn in the city," a label I very much liked the sound of) during the remaining months of that drafty, educational, completely memorable winter in London, until – after traveling with them through England's "Black Country" and across Scotland on a speaking tour of the professor's; being put up by "the comrades" and talking socialism in the pubs; accompanying them that spring on a month-long tour of continental Europe; finally joining with them the circle around C.L.R. James, the late West Indian writer and Marxist intellectual, and taking part, as a Red "fellow traveler" (I had strayed that far from the writer whose mind was too fine, T. S. Eliot said of Henry James, to contain an idea), in the writing of a socialist pamphlet called Negro Americans Take the Lead (Facing Reality Publications, Detroit, 1964) – I was deemed "family," and the younger sister and I were considered a couple. We were a couple, but only in the Jamesian platonic sense, though the worldly comrades assumed otherwise.

In May 1964, after six months in Europe and everybody broke by then (besides, I, anyhow, was suffering twinges of patriotism from an overexposure to the comrades’ blanket anti-Americanism: I could no more totally reject my native country than I could totally accept the Gospel according to Marx), the four of us, via economy class Icelandic Airlines, flew home to an America turned restless after the Kennedy assassination. We landed at the former Idlewild Airport, now Kennedy International Airport, and began to learn of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, the rising of a counterculture, psychedelic drugs, and the government's escalating involvement in Vietnam.

We lingered in New York, the professor's hometown, where he and the two sisters lodged with his mother, in Brooklyn. I stayed, as I had before boarding the Bristol City, in Brooklyn Heights with my old friend from our days together in journalism school at the University of Minnesota; took in the World's Fair with the younger sister; toured Central Park and Coney Island and various museums and other New York City landmarks with the professor and both sisters.

I followed them to Detroit, where I met the professor's circle of colleagues and former students and the sisters’ parents. The professor found me a billet near the university campus in a student communal house, where I watched a boy take peyote (my introduction to the Sixties drug scene) and promptly throw up. Before that I'd spent my first night in town in the basement of the sisters’ parents' house in east Detroit, from which I heard the younger sister being grilled about me upstairs by her mother. Her mother was a brisk former Girl Scout leader, her father a stern Ford Company foreman. Both regarded me with beady eyes.

Finally, after a week or so of mooning about, I took a bus to Chicago and then a bus to Minneapolis, where my mother met me at the station. I was given a room in my parents’ house outside Minneapolis and worked that summer on the golf course my father had built on what remained of our old farm. (On a wall in the house, beside iconic pictures of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, my devout Catholic mother had hung a photograph of the martyred John F. Kennedy; later, after JFK’s rampant sex life had been revealed, the picture disappeared.) The younger sister and I corresponded.

That fall, ostensibly on my way to Mexico (I had Mexico in reserve), I swung by Detroit and found myself, after a couple of cautious, reacquainting days, agreeing to stay. For in a swoon like Gabriel's at the end of Joyce's great story "The Dead" (my imagination persisted in being literary), I had happily yielded my Jamesian celibacy for Lawrencian carnal knowledge, and my platonic affair with the younger sister was platonic no longer.

The following spring, we were married. And so we've remained.