GCSPrank Is Here

For people who spend the day saying and writing things that others accept, while thinking things that are infinitely more interesting.

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Gil C. Schmidt was born. Lucky for him and some 416 people, many of who don't seem to know it. Lives in Puerto Rico, which is convenient because he also works from there. Gil writes about dozens of real things (with relish) and dozens of imaginary things (like phantasmagoric pickles), in separate forums. Author of several books and a son, Gil gets in trouble when he's bored. Please head to the egress now.


Friday, November 12, 2010

Bismarck

It still pisses me off...

In a tiny mini-mall, near the back, past Abbie's Irish Rose, was a small store that became another of my "lengthy hangout spots." It sold handcrafts and wargames. I bought one game, then another, and playing with and against Don and Bill quickly became a major interest for me. I'll point out that I won many more than I lost, mainly because I was very much a competitive little brat who played everything as if it were life or death. I had fun.

One day, I bought "Bismarck", an Avalon Hill classic that recreated the battle between the German super-battleship and the British Navy forces trying desperately to sink it before it reached the safety of the Mediterranean. The game, with its naval theme, was not high on my list of interests, but its game mechanics were. The German player would plot his movement on a pad with map sheets and when the British player found the Bismarck (on the board, searching with air and sea forces), the battle began.

Don and I played the game twice, he as the German both times because he respected (tolerated) my competitiveness and felt that by picking the "losing" side, if he lost, it was the "normal" result. I won both times, sinking the Bismarck with alacrity.

We played a third time, a sunny afternoon that didn't merit going to class. Once again, I took the British forces and Don plotted his moves on the pad. I sent out my planes in search patterns and sat back to enjoy the game.

After four turns, I sensed something was wrong. The obvious was that I hadn't found the Bismarck. I went over my moves and picked another set of searches. The Bismarck was coming south from the North Sea and had to pass the Straits of Gibraltar to win the game. The search area was large, but the British had plenty of planes and ships to ensure the German juggernaut was caught. I looked at the coastline--France, Spain, Portugal--and at the more westerly sections from my search areas and tried again.

Nothing. Another search. Nothing. I stared at the board, thinking Don must have moved west, in essence a flanking move, the veritable long way around, to get past the bulk of my forces and then dash east. I sent planes that way. Nothing. I tried the northern search area again, just in case Don had "parked" the Bismarck to throw me off. Nothing. I sent more searches and ships to the southern search zones. Nothing.

I sat there, wanting to ask Don if he had followed the rules, but knowing he was as fair a player as there was ever born, I simply stared at the board. I looked at every plane, every ship, every freaking hex of that board as Don sat there patiently.

Another search. Nothing. I sent my forces further south and west and then Don looked up at me, smiled and said "I'm in. I got past Gibraltar."

Stunned. I know I gawped at him. He was smiling, obviously pleased. He may have even started to apologize, good guy, knowing I took losses badly. I didn't hear him well because all I could ask was "How?"

He showed me. He took the Bismarck as close to the coast as he could, limiting his movement as per the rules, but in essence tracking along the coast lines, just past the edge of my search patterns. The ones I'd limited because the coastline path was...wrong.

Only it had been right. Don had made it right.

Back then, most of my self-image was wrapped up in "intelligence," the oft-mentioned notion that I was smart; to some people, amazingly so. But in Don I met the first person in my life who was at least "as smart" as I...and was a nice guy, to boot. Having noticed that and instead of being competitive about it, I'd found myself admiring it, with a personal caveat: Never underestimate Don. Never underestimate his intelligence, his creativity, his sheer ability to be brilliant. Never. And in Bismarck, I had underestimated him. I thought he couldn't beat me. And because I had thought that, I had been clearly outplayed and he'd won the game.

We never played Bismarck again. My fault, for I'm sure we played other games rather than that one because of that third game and Don may have offered to play it again--nice guy--but I'm sure I declined.

I never underestimated Don again. In anything. There were times when I may have exasperated him by saying he could do more--and he could--but I never tried to use my expectations against him, as some people do, to criticize him, using "friendship" as a cover for "envy." I never envied Don; I admired him. Always have.

And yet, when I hear or read or think about the Bismarck...it still pisses me off.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

AFROTC

A blue uniform, heavy in wool, cut squarely to flatter a figure both wider and shallower than mine. A peaked cap that acted more like weather vane than symbol. The ritual of dressing was akin to torture, a depressing rite faced only with the balm of music and flashes of anger.

Joining the Air Force ROTC program was not a wise decision for me. Although raised as an Air Force brat, familiar with base life and the rigors of military existence, AFROTC was more mild nightmare after anchovy pizza than a formative experience.

The first facet of the nightmare was the gung-ho mentality, the “War is Glory” vehemence of youths with battle experience limited to war movies, wargames and the occasional fistfight. They pranced and snorted like immature apes, bandying words of aggression like pre-schoolers talking about being policemen, firemen and superheroes.

The second facet was the banality of the program itself. Mired in post-Vietnam apathy, soured by the then-recent humiliation of the Iranian hostage crisis, the Armed Forces were searching for relevance in a world not yet fooled by Reagan’s policies and still fooled by so-called “Communist threats.”

The third facet of the nightmare was my hair, shoulder-length from Day One to well beyond the final hour. ROTC regulations no longer forced a cadet’s hair to be trimmed to specs, so with nary a thought, I let it grow. But in the midst of my natural incompatibility, I felt the vague wash of shame. My father had served honorably and with commendations for 21 years, and yet here I was, displaying a flip attitude in the uniform he wore with dignity. The colonel once remarked about it, unable to keep himself neutral as expected. I nodded as if he’d spoken words I’d make my own. But I didn’t say “Yessir” nor did I take his suggestion.

The fourth and final facet was my temporary loss of isolation and anonymity. Wearing that blue canvas tent made me feel like a marked man again, a target, a figure to be scorned and singled out for abuse. Knowing only one way to handle that—straight on and inflicting pain on others as well as myself—the exposure dragged me back to a time and place I had definitely left behind. Week after week I went through the gauntlet of exposure, struggling to beat the odds and my own fears. Yet I take away from those hours the certainty that while wearing the uniform I never missed a commitment, whether class or ceremony, was never late and never acted in any way that would chalk up a black mark on the unit. My hair was enough.

One Thanksgiving, the commander, Major Covell, invited me to his home. Three other cadets were also invited, but as I was the stranger in his home, I attracted the most attention. The conversation funneled through me, so much so that I barely ate. Once dinner ended, I headed for the kitchen to help with the dishes, but was shooed away by Mrs. Covell (with a warm smile) and called away by Major Covell, to sneers from the cadets. Football, of course. The cadets tried to impress Major Covell with their knowledge of the war sport, when in the middle of the second quarter, I predicted a lengthy series of plays and the commentary about it. The cadets lapsed into furious silence and Major Covell seemed to really notice me for the first time.

“You know a lot about football,” he said to me.

Eyes on my fellow cadets I said “I know a lot about a lot of things.”

Major Covell smiled. “So why don’t you put them on display in the program?” His eyes were cheerful, wine-happy without drinking wine.

I stared at the cadets. “Not enough competition,” I said. They paled and started talking loudly.

Major Covell asked “Run or pass?” then belatedly nodded towards the TV screen.

I almost laughed. I got the message. “They will pass, about 15 yards out,” I replied, pointing at the screen. “And I’ll stay.”

Major Covell laughed and clapped softly. The cadets stared at us like a befuddled hydra. The pass was complete for a 14 yard gain.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Oxpatch

Every character needs a stage. For GCSPrank, that stage was a tiny village, wrapped in its myth of literary and historical pedigree. Dropped amidst the emptiness of northern Mississippi, Oxford was irreverently and accurately called Oxpatch, a moniker that framed its attitude and size quite well.

From dusty arrival one cool January morning to testy departure one cloudy January morning four years later, Oxford accepted me reluctantly. Long accustomed to outright rejection—some of it well-deserved—the lazy, impassive, almost bovine indifference to my presence that Oxford dropped in my path was like a Welcome Wagon on skids. Passing for an American in appearance and name, but Puerto Rican in heart and mind, the surprise was not that I was suddenly cold-shouldered after the revelation, but that Oxfordians and state brethren would consider it almost their duty to do so. The Old South had changed, from white sheets to blank eyes.

I walked the village for days, days I tell you, from one end to another, through shaded streets and open roads to grimy alleys and mottled woods. Time and again I’d visit the town, with its early rush of “farm folk” in the post-dawn hours to the staid passages of the mid-afternoon throng, heavily influenced by students, businessmen and passers-through on their way to someplace more important.

Oxford had a warm heart, a generous helping of Southern hospitality and gentility that could ease your mind. Oxford also had a mean streak, one that afforded open approval of a KKK rally during a Confederate flag controversy more academic than racial. The whites stayed on their sides; the blacks on theirs and I wandered through both sides. Never in defiance. My presence was never a challenge, but an admission that I could only truly learn if I shared openly. It was a challenge to myself and I confess I didn’t do as well as I wanted to.

I spoke more often than my habit with dozens of people of all ages and skin colors. Some conversations were brief and sharp. Very few, really. Most were rambling jazz sessions, trying to find a common rhythm we could attune ourselves to. The gap could be too wide and the end result was a slow descent into awkward silence. At other times, the gap was bridged with a rainbow of words and images that carried its own reward from beginning to end.

From oddness to odd comfort to odd distaste, Oxford mutated in my mind. A blanket in the dark, an aquarium during the day; playground in the summer and prison in the winter. I was unimpressed at first sight and unsentimental at the last. Oxford holds its own place in my mind, a curiosity that no longer inspires the need for examination, collecting dust on a mental shelf tucked deep.

One day I could arise to feel the urge to return to Oxford, though it has changed into another world by now. But I’ve learned quite well that what’s possible is very much outside of what’s expected. Especially in Oxpatch.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Pizza Inn

Everyone in college seems to have a hangout or seven. A popular one for Bill, Don and me was Pizza Inn, across the road from Rebel Deli, just catty-corner to Kiamie Lanes and the useful Mr. Quik. The advantage of Pizza Inn was more location than Italian cuisine.

Going through management like Italy went through Prime Ministers, Pizza Inn went from hangout to job site and back to hangout. Bill and I worked there, and speaking for myself, my only gain was learning how to make a pizza, though in mediocre fashion. I’ve gotten much better.

As a hangout, Pizza Inn gave us a place where we could go play some video games, watch the big projector TV and just annoy the waitresses for hours, because there were always empty tables. (Sign number One about management changes.) The menu was simple: pizza, salads, pastas, soft drinks and beer, though beer wasn’t part of our diet. Bill and I were such regular customers that we were often given free pitchers… of Dr. Pepper. I hate Dr. Pepper. I said it every time. We kept getting free pitchers of Dr. Pepper. (Sign number Two about management changes.)

Walloped by the grand opening of Domino’s, Pizza Inn tried to match the “30 minutes or its free” deal, but with nowhere near the resources the delivery specialist had. So every night during that month, we’d brace for “The Big One,” an order that strained our manpower and oven capacity in a race against time. Sure enough, the phone would ring and we’d hear: “Six extra-large, with the works,” and an address on campus.

Dough and toppings would fly and pies were shoved into the ovens almost like shingles. Fifteen minutes later they’d be yanked out, slashed without mercy, dropped into boxes and the designated driver would race out and peel rubber…

And come back, pizzas congealing in soggy boxes. “No one there,” he’d say, shrugging. A few times he sold the pizzas at discount to guys who happened to be standing outside the dorm and eventually Pizza Inn dropped the charade. (Sign number Three.)

The buffet, Tuesdays and Sundays, then Wednesdays and Fridays and then some Mondays and then some Saturdays from 4 to 6 PM then only on Sundays from 11 to 2 PM (sign number Four) strangely ended every time with a large extra pepperoni pizza coming out one minute before the buffet closed and thus, to avoid wastage, was shared by the employees. Didn’t matter who was tossing pies: that pizza came out like, well, clockwork. You’d think management would figure out the logistics of pulling that off consistently and yes, apply it to the rest of the operation. Never happened. (Sign number Five.)

One Sunday evening, after eating like starving bears, Don and I walked out of Pizza Inn and spotted a group of about 10 people getting out of their cars, possibly after attending a church service. At that moment, a stray cat raced across the parking lot. Without a second’s hesitation, Don and I began chasing it at the same time yelling ”Food! Fooood!”

We chased the cat out of the lot and over a fence, then turned without a word and walked away.

The church group looked at each other, got back into their cars and left. I guess that could be taken as Sign number Six.

Friday, June 10, 2005

M*A*S*H*

It lasted almost 11 years, revolving around a time that lasted barely five. A satire of military half-thoughts and a herd-like society, the show also lauded dedication, compassion, tolerance, loyalty and humor. It blended comedy and drama in ways that are common now, but were strikingly new and powerful then and remain even so now. It’s name was a four-letter word that became an icon: M*A*S*H*

No show was better-suited for black-and-white TV, surrounded as it was by green and khaki. But no show was better-suited to the mind’s theater, that rich stage where words, images and their emotions come together to make you feel as if it were all real.

M*A*S*H* pulled you in, whether you were a hawk or a dove. It was grounded in the reality of war and the equal reality of its idiocy. M*A*S*H* thumbed its nose at high command and authority, disconnected from the truth, while elevating the common man and woman doing the extraordinary routinely to their rightful role as heroes. Facing pain with laughter, melding tears with smiles, M*A*S*H* also told us of the power of friendship to keep us hale when walking through portions of hell.

The final episode was a true happening, the first of what would become “must see TV” moments. For weeks before the two-hour movie that would close the longest war we never fought, the media kept the public posted on the final moments, the cast’s feelings and what TV critics were saying would be either a glorious finale or a fabulous flop.

Around the nation, M*A*S*H* parties were scheduled, with many attendees coming dressed in scrubs and mock-military duds; some men dressed as women to honor Corporal Klinger’s quest for a Section 8, though he was now a responsible sergeant. Bill invited me to such a party at the Student Union, but I declined. I would watch the last show, in my apartment, with Carol.

Storylines of the final half-hour episodes led into the movie and as scene after scene developed, I sensed, then knew I was watching something unique, a powerful collage of heart and emotion. I carefully kept my eyes on the screen and avoided looking at Carol, afraid my tears would give me away. And as the final scene unfolded, Hawkeye flying above a rock-dotted “Goodbye,” I struggled hard not to sob.

I could deny that I was caught in the emotion of a mere comedy show, but it was more than that: it was the acknowledgement--unknown to me--that “goodbye” was a word worth expressing. It accepts reality. It looks beyond and back at the same time. It frames and savors the bittersweet moment.

I learned that lesson then and then forgot it for years. In the silence that followed the show’s closing, I noticed Carol too had been touched by what we’d seen. It was several minutes before we spoke, but they were important to me because I had shared as much as I could without being hurt, a treasure to a barren soul.

The movie has been shown several times, but I haven't watched it again. Maybe someday I will. For now, I rely on my memories to bring the emotions back, and forward, to my time. I do watch the episodes every chance I get, though my TV time is now minutes a day rather than hours. Through M*A*S*H* I see friendship and remember my friends. That will never change.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Scuzzo

I think Don and Bill gave him to me as a birthday gift. A tiny ball of fake fur, eyes and nose and feet connected to a roughly ovoid head, his color that of runny diarrhea. We named him “Scuzzo” and he became Rapline’s Official Mascot.

As Official Mascot, Scuzzo’s duties were quickly determined to be football, annoying projectile, conversation starter (“Have you seen Scuzzo?”) and gamepiece in the ensuing battle between Sonja, Protector of Scuzzo and “The Miscreants,” led by the rest of us.

One of Scuzzo’s first and most most frequent rescues was freeing him from hangman’s nooses. I would weave a noose from the curtain cords and then execute Scuzzo, a piercing metaphor for our times that Sonja thought was just plain cruel.

Bill and I would often carry on conversations with Scuzzo punctuating our wisdom as he flew back and forth across the office. Scuzzo’s usually-perplexed expression never altered, giving him the look of a dazed dodo as he hung in mid-air.

Time and again someone would hide Scuzzo, usually in a drawer, underneath a seat cushion, behind a file cabinet or even kidnap him for a day or two. However, the weeks of using Scuzzo as a prop ended when Sonja, winner of an enthusiastic game of “keep-away,” made a promise to protect Scuzzo “once and for all.”

Obeying the new rule that Scuzzo had to remain within Rapline’s two-room office, Sonja confidently announced to us that Scuzzo was “safe.” That night, and the next day, we searched the offices and came up empty-handed. As neither Bill nor I were known for reining in stubborness, we kept searching, but found neither cloth nor thread of our nearly-departed Scuzzo.

Life intruded and the search for Scuzzo took a back seat for almost a month. Bill asked Sonja if Scuzzo was within the office and she answered firmly “Yes,” prompting a renewed search.

Nothing.

After pondering for a few days, Bill came into the office and told me he had an idea. He placed a chair in the doorway of our “file closet,” climbed on the chair and peered up inside the closet. In a neutral voice he said: “I found him.”

Coming down from the chair, he politely waved me atop it. I climbed, peered back above my head and my mouth actually dropped open. High up on the “inner” side of the closet wall, about a foot from the top, was Scuzzo, his beady eyes wondering who I was. His feet, tucked neatly against his head, had been nailed to the wall.

I climbed down. “She crucified Scuzzo!” Bill nodded, climbed back up and using the filing cabinet as brace, managed to de-crucify our Official Mascot.

Well I can tell you that word of Scuzzo’s crucifixion flew through Rapline’s staff like measles in a playpen. Naturally, we had to hold a burial ceremony for Scuzzo, with the obligatory rising on the third day. Sonja acted casual about her cruelty and I, for one, was envious of her idea.

Scuzzo did return to his usual duties, except that his role as gamepiece was pretty much over. What do you do to someone who’s already been crucified?

Later that year I lost track of the critter and I don’t know where Scuzzo ended up. I suspect Sonja retrieved him and I hope he didn’t end up with her in a nunnery. He’d already been crucified for several weeks: he didn’t need a fate worse than that.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Music: 1984

I arrived in Hattiesburg with barely a plan: say hi to Tim-the-Freudian, find an apartment, get a job. Though I had changed living quarters in Oxford a few times, the move to Hattiesburg was my first in four years, damn near a lifetime in my experience, and was the first I had orchestrated entirely for my own reasons.

A new sense of time, place and self had emerged. My own steps. My own decisions. Beholden to no one. Not yet 20, not really 19. Found Tim, an apartment and a job. And on the second day, I rested.

Music had become visual, as the MTV experiment had grown into a major entertainment phenomenon. Intrigued, I watched music. But despite some excellent and even artistic efforts, music would remain a product of my imagery. So despite the undeniable presences of Michael Jackson, Madonna, Culture Club and The Police, other songs and artists framed my moments.

Hours went by as I drove the streets and roads in senseless attempts to be what I wasn’t. The somber aches of those moments return with OWNER OF A LONELY HEART, by Yes and HARD HABIT TO BREAK, by Chicago. Hearing Chicago was especially poignant as Don was an avid fan of their music, the only person I ever met who had all their albums.

The newly-won freedom of relying entirely on myself is revived by Laura Branigan’s SELF CONTROL; Kool and the Gang’s JOANNA; I CAN DREAM ABOUT YOU by Dan Hartman and especially THE WARRIOR, with Scandal adding Patty Smyth to the mix. And Billy Joel's FOR THE LONGEST TIME was a connection to a rock and roll feeling I grafted onto my quickly-suppressed memories of Oxford.

Two songs evoke the feeling of Hattiesburg in ways I can’t pinpoint: HOLD ME NOW, by The Thompson Twins and The Cars’ YOU MIGHT THINK. Over the years, the undefinable essence of that evocation has prompted many a self-search. On the other hand, CUM ON FEEL THE NOIZE, by Quiet Riot reminds me of riding to Mac’s Fish Camp with Brendan and Terry, jammed together in his small Isuzu pickup truck… and me riding in the back during the return because the All-You-Can-Eat for $10 was a bargain, a challenge and a chance for gross excess we could not pass up. We were indeed a quiet riot then.

My central stage in Hattiesburg was Brendan’s comic book shop, a snug library of memories and discoveries. Conversation, joking, games, hilarity, trading, reading and music fused into a single experience, pearls on a growing string. The songs that place me there, sitting on an upturned milk crate and watching the oddities walk in and out are TRUE, by Spandau Ballet; OH SHERRY, by Steve Perry; IF EVER YOU'RE IN MY ARMS AGAIN, by Peabo Bryson and ALMOST PARADISE, by Mick Reno and Ann Wilson.

The jokes would fly and reach outer orbits as Corey Hart revealed he wore SUNGLASSES AT NIGHT, prompting intensive discussions of stupidity (in other people, never ourselves.) Tim Shoemake and I would argue constantly over Stevie Wonder’s nasal I JUST CALLED TO SAY I LOVE YOU, my trenchant observation that it was Stevie’s lament while sitting on a nail trouncing Tim’s loopy opinion that it was the love song of the decade. I still rehash the give-and-take that often included references to Watergate, the Byzantine Empire, John Lennon, bad cheesecake, the best way to drive to Alaska, impressionist paintings, how the invention of gunpowder doomed the Chinese empire, why money isn’t real, medical procedures that sound more horrible than what they actually are and doomed relationships. Customers walking into the middle of our conversation would invariably ask what we were discussing. Tim and I always shared what we called “the recap,” going backwards from the current topic and tracing the path back to Stevie, relishing the blank faces of reaction. I smile even now.

On the other hand, both Tim and I agreed that WAKE ME UP BEFORE YOU GO-GO, by Wham! would make them a one-hit wonder, never to be heard from again. Okay, so I missed one; he missed two.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Music: 1980

I left the U.S. for Puerto Rico in 1972 and returned in 1980. At that time, it was my 16th move—averaging one a year—product of an Air Force that felt my dad was the guy for the job in too many places.

In the midst of making the transition back to what was once familiar, I didn’t take into account that my interests were no longer the same. My attitudes had changed. My horizons were broader than even many, much older people. If the world around me was different—very much so—so was I, even more different than the changes in the world now around me.

But like a masterful soundtrack, compelling but subliminal, music began linking the gaps. In Puerto Rico, music is like air, often hot, always present, occasionally overwhelming. Though first I noticed the relative silence, I quickly developed a habit of tuning in to the music of the new background, the melodies and rhythms that marked the minutes and suffused my space.

Music became my embodiment of time and place. It is for near everyone, but for me it wasn’t an automatic process: it was deliberately cultivated. It began with Queen’s CRAZY LITTLE THING CALLED LOVE, echoing the rollicking rhythm of Elvis and the nervous energy of arrival. LONGER by Dan Fogelberg settled like a butterfly on the soul, a signal that calm was not weakness. I can feel both songs as they place me in the Rapline office, the vintage 60s stereo the perfect companion for solitary nights and shared pain.

Wrenching Janis Joplin’s tragedy back to our minds was Bette Midler’s THE ROSE, a song that drifted over the nooks and crannies of Oxford like a gauzy curtain. Christopher Cross emerged full-blown and bracketed the summer with SAILING and RIDE LIKE WIND, songs that bring the heat of dry sunny days of exploration. IT'S STILL ROCK & ROLL TO ME, by Billy Joel, was the drumbeat of those lazy, hazy days, energizing and insouciant.

But the clearest mental stage is a bowling alley, Kiamie Lanes, where Mae Helen served chili and sandwiches, Bill, Don and I scattered pins and quips and music was like a second skin. FUNKYTOWN, by Lipps Inc., is the scenario for happy moments when a win was secured. The tender harmonies of SHINING STAR, by The Manhattans, brings moments of sadness, none my own. Not everyone went to Kiamie’s to share: some went to say goodbye. INTO THE NIGHT, by Benny Mardones and JUST THE TWO OF US, by Grover Wasington Jr. and Bill Withers are a sonorous reminder of quiet times with friends, those moments when silence is shared because it’s understood. STEAL AWAY, by Robbie Dupre is the song of a prank executed brilliantly, though I believe the bulk of the pain ended up being mine.

The Spinners are my bridge from Kiamie’s to everywhere else, with medleys that never failed to break my darkest moods. WORKING MY WAY BACK TO YOU/FORGIVE ME GIRL was the anthem of a future I could dimly perceive; CUPID/I'VE LOVED YOU FOR A LONG TIME was the paean of a brief past I felt too keenly.

The last piece of that 1980 collage came much later, in the summer of 1981, when The Manhattan Transfer, an outstanding jazz vocal group went nova with BOY FROM NEW YORK CITY. A jukebox in a long warehouse space, several pinball machines, four guys playing away, talking about everything and nothing, empty pizza boxes scattered about, the Oxford streets barren as the tiny clock buzzed the wee hours… moments of heart and mind caught in a web of notes.

It would happen again in 1984.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Wargames

The store sat at the back of a “village mall,” some outré mélange of faux country-style and business rent. You literally walked into it, as the store seemed more an extension of the lobby than an actual store.

The lady in charge—one of the older ladies I bandied words with extensively—had created a store that was part women’s hobby shop, part decoration center and part wargame depot. Needlepoint and crochet kits vied with dried flowers and wicker baskets to create a visual eccentricity that was pleasing.

Up on shelves—sentinels over frippery—stood the wargames. In one of the many indications of coincidence as lubricant of the Universe, I had read about a wargame called Blitzkrieg, an abstract wargame more reminiscent of chess than simulations, pitting Red versus Blue. The next day, while going to visit one of “my ladies,” I saw the game on the high shelf, next to other boxed items of future interest.

I bought Blitzkrieg and jumped without a banzai into wargames. After wading through the rules, I went over the game with Don and we played a few times. In what was to become a defining moment, we discovered that the game essentially became a huge central-front gridlock with a desperate conclusion… so we tweaked the rules. Enter the mind of a game designer.

While others were focusing on the sci-fi randomness of Traveler and the fuzziness of Dungeons & Dragons, I jumped into the premier wargame catalogue of the day: Avalon Hill. Over the years, I bought games as diverse as Kingmaker, Machiavelli, Civilization, Circus Maximus, Alexander, Down with the King, Diplomacy, Third Reich, Storm Over Arnhem, Napoleon, Magic Realm, D-Day and Bismarck (aaaagghh!) The joy was always the same: defining an interesting game, ordering it, reading the rules, playing it once or twice and then tweaking the rules for better gameplay.

I often played alone, the only sad aspect of my love of wargames. I was not one to join a “club” or advertise my interest on scraps of paper pinned to a bulletin board. I explored the game designer’s lot of rules and strategies, seeking a balance between logic, accuracy and mental effort that would make the game more absorbing. Hours would fly by as I played scenarios over and over, trying new tactics and seeking flaws.

I learned to take apart a game’s mechanics and apply simple rules to make it work. I discovered that playability lay in keeping complexity at hand, but simplicity on the board. Naturally, I made up games, simple representations of what a game could be, and in those days before computing power at our fingertips, the games remained in embryo.

I never really pursued game design in any serious way. At most, I created games for neighborhood kids to play, and when I had the chance, introduced them into the world of wargames. It pleases me that some of the games I invented—and the memories of those days and nights playing wargames—are still brought up in conversations.

Avalon Hill is now a faded memory. Most of my collection of wargames is gone. It has been years since I played a wargame of that solitary time. Ever so often I yearn for the chance to play, to match wits across a colorful board, to battle time and again. I read about gamer clubs that revive the old AH titles and I feel the unaccostumed spearing of envy. It’s as if I had gone into mourning some 20 years ago, this extended, seldom interrupted, sadness, an emotional hollow of need that I can’t bring myself to express.

They’re only games, after all.

Friday, June 03, 2005

It

There are days—not many—when I know I have it, a special energy that seems to beam from my skin. It attracts the eyes of women, some of whom stare like cats as they try to determine what caught their attention. It creates an aura that often startles a woman who sees me suddenly, a combination of surprise and puzzlement that leaves a strong impression, many times leading to a sudden relaxing of the body that serves as a prelude to more intimate conversation.

Men who look at me on those days often frown, as if challenged in some primitive way. On those days, men walking with women tend to reach out to them, pull them closer, openly place themselves between me and “their” woman or glare at me. Although I make eye contact with the woman, I never change expression or make any gesture, nor do I hold the contact longer than needed to see their reaction. Often enough to please me, on those days of it, women will move away from the men and keep their eyes glued to mine.

Those few days happen on their own. I can no more will them as I can will the sun to stop. They emerge slow, yet swiftly, a rising crescendo of energy that swoops upward to fly above the normal into the extraordinary. I ride that energy, play with it, revel in its glow like an otter in the bay, treasuring every minute as if collecting gold figurines.

The flight may last a few hours or several, but its afterglow carries me ‘til the morrow. Except for that one day when I thought it was mine to control, that I was pilot of my fantastic flight.

I have blue eyes. Not a big deal, except in a country where brown is the vast majority. They are almost certainly my only attractive feature, as I am neither tall, nor broad nor handsome. The blue is not singular in hue, but at times can become dark, tending to indigo or lighten from sky to baby. And on those days when it appears, my eyes have been described as vivid, haunting or unforgettable.

On one such day, in my teen years, I walked into the Post Office. As I addressed a letter, a woman walked over to me, entranced. I had noticed her outside. Her face was transformed, serene, intent and her walk was slow, as if in church. She stood within a few feet of me and said with liquid force: “You have such beautiful eyes.”

It was here. And with the mindless glee of the drunk, I replied: “It’s my contact lenses. They’re brown. My contacts that is.”

The face became mask. From alive to blank, vibrant to defensive. “I said you have beautiful eyes.” Her voice was dry, a hint of doubt creeping in like a weedy tendril.

“Oh, I know,” I babbled on, drunk on myself. “I paid green for brown that seems blue.”

Shutdown. Anger, sharp and thick, covered her face. She twirled, her heavy skirt a dismissive wave as she walked out. It followed her. I knew she thought her words and emotion were wasted on a dork. I knew she was right.

I felt empty. Not so much drained as sucked dry by the massive void of my careless words. For although I knew then I had ruined it, it was years before I knew why.

On those magical days that flow from me, I am giving the best of myself freely. I feel in tune with me, and that is what it shares with the world. It is generosity, the sharing of spirit; it cannot be forced, for doing so breaks the connection. Generosity denied is selfishness of the venal sort.

I took from that sincere woman not only my generosity, but hers. I severed mine, but what I did to hers went beyond denial to contempt and disrespect. She honored me in my moment: I dishonored her acknowledgement of it.

The flight—the magical flow—has returned many times. I let it happen as one lets the dawn. I neither seek nor rely on it, and while the energy glows, I move with it like a soaring bird, lightly upon its currents, content to follow any lead, swoop smilingly in any direction and land when it lulls away. Never again have I cut the flow… nor will I. It is mine and yet not. Maybe someday it will be.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Indy and Superman

The movies came out in the same summer, with the fedora-topped Indiana Jones reaching the local screens before the Man of Tomorrow.

A fan of comic books since I started reading, Superman was the towering figure of Truth, Justice and what passed for an American Way that seemed to include only white people. Or pink, actually. The whole magic of the film was the selection of an unknown actor, Christopher Reeve, as the latest incarnation of the most emblematic of funny-book heroes and the latest technology to make it seem like a man (or woman) could fly. None of this “George Reeves on a table with strings tugging his cape” crap.

I point out that George committed suicide. I’m sure there’s no connection.

But before the flying unknown crossed the screen, Indiana Jones outsmarted death traps, ran through the jungle to escape a hundred crazed warriors, fought snakes, solved puzzles, took punches and blows that would deck a lesser man, sabotaged a plane, shot a swordsman (okay, not really sporting, but damn funny), hijacked a truck after being dragged under it (by choice, of course) and even infiltrated a Nazi submarine.

I remember telling Tim-the-Freudian that after seeing Indy, Superman would be a wimp. Well, he was. Although it’s true that Raiders is a much better movie than Superman, to me the difference went deeper. Superman was simply “unengaging”. He didn’t make you feel much because, well, he’s just loaded with advantages too overwhelming to pose a challenge, so you ultimately don’t care.

Indy was human, with common frailties, but a sense of purpose—and thus of self—that made him heroic. Superman was a hero because he simply had to be: he had no choice. Indy was a hero because he chose to be, despite the many chances to choose otherwise.

I’ve since watched people as they face challenges. I especially watch me. Are they—am I—choosing the heroic or the mundane? Although none of has ever been forced a la Superman to be a hero, there are times when the decision is made for us. Having a child who needs us is an obvious example. But in those foggy moments when taking the heroic road is difficult, especially when people will never see the choice, I always remember Indy and Superman: one human, one alien; the chooser and the chosen; free will versus obligation. I have failed to make the choice for heroic a number of times; it has yet to be a pleasant experience. Unlike the Man of Steel, I am flesh and blood.

Indy would understand. I couldn’t care less if Superman does.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Deli and Destruction

It sat almost on a corner, across a wide parking lot from Mr. Quik and Kiamie Bowling Lanes and across the road from Pizza Inn. I once spent a solitary summer in its second room apartment. It had the publicity-oriented name of Rebel Deli and it was a den of destruction.

Rebel Deli served—-as expected—-deli-style sandwiches, with thin-cut meats and steamed goodness. A simple menu meant quality and service could be high and with about 12 tables, you always had a bit of a crowd. But to the rear of the Deli, standing like a stack of weapons, were the true engines of destruction: video games.

This was 1980. Pong had shown that a game played on a screen could foster addiction and the first wave of great video games emerged. For a generation raised on Half Life and Doom, Space Invaders seems throbbingly dull. But for us, the first generation of video gamers, the drumming metronome of descending aliens that gained aggressiveness as time ran out, was a shot of mental crack. Quarter after quarter was dropped into the console, techniques were debated, tested and approved and the early game wizards, guys who could play for an hour on just one quarter, were as close to demi-gods as we ever saw.

The gobbling munchies of Pac-Man, with its maze-running/escape skills, burst on the scene and added a new—disturbing—element to video games: women. Lacking in any true violence (eating meat on the hoof without caloric penalty being less violence than wish-fulfillment for the anorexic and bulimic corps, I guess), Pac-Man often had us guys waiting in line behind a girl to play a game. Some of the guys took advantage of the situation to play “video Lothario,” but the efforts (at least those in my presence) were as comfortable as using someone else’s dirty hanky.

But the Rebel Deli quarter-muncher, destroyer of budgets and savings, was Asteroids. Deceptively simple, with only lines to demark boulders, rocks and ships, Asteroids introduced full-screen movement in a circular universe: fly left, emerge on the right; fly up, emerge at the bottom. In a burst of genius, inertia was also a part of the formula, as your ability to maneuver was limited by your speed. Blast an asteroid, get two boulders; blast a boulder, get two rocks. Clear the screen of debris, shoot the trigger-happy little alien ship and move on.

Asteroids, boulders and rocks broke in reaction to speed and angle, so that sometimes debris would fly by as happy whales or at warp speeds. As your skills developed—-quarter after quarter—-you could anticipate how a shot would create a reaction and plan your moves. Like any challenging activity, focused effort and lots of practice gave you appreciable growth. But in the end, your little ships would find themselves overwhelmed and the death-phrase “Game Over” would shut down the flow to your pleasure centers.

Bill and I often spent hours at Rebel Deli, eating sporadically and practically living on a stool in front of Asteroids. One memorable day, we arrived at 11 AM, ate about 8 sandwiches apiece and left shortly after 6, our stomachs a bit fuller than our pockets. Near the end, I was playing mechanically, the way a lifeboat survivor continues to bail even as the rescue ship looms above. We walked out and parted ways.

Next morning, at 11 AM, we were back on the stool, blasting rocks, eating sandwiches, lost in the Deli and the Destruction.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Cleaning the Cleaners

I had been down that alley several times before, a good shortcut from where I was to somewhere else. The glass window had an old wooden frame and a few times I’d peered in to see the silent, cold machines of a dry cleaner.

One night I absently pulled the window up…and it slid open. The sharp smell of dry cleaning fluid in warm air hit me like a warm sock. Without hesitation, I slid inside and pressed the window closed. The large room, open to view from the street, felt muggy and my skin tingled with the feeling of being exposed. I roamed aimlessly, just looking, keeping low as cars passed outside. Finally, tired of the effort, I headed back for the window. And I saw the safe.

It seems a natural tendency to see a safe and want to twirl the dial. I did and stopped as it clicked. I stared at the dial, sitting on 38. Then, without thinking about it, I twisted the handle… and the safe opened.

It was all dark. I reached in and discovered the safe was much smaller inside than the outside indicated, and that the small interior space was stuffed with paper. Dollars and checks. I emptied the safe and with no rush, found a paper bag in a drawer above the safe, stuffed everything into the bag and left the dry cleaners through the window. No one saw me as I made my way back to my apartment.

I counted the cash: $438. I totaled the checks: $519. A grand total of $957. I stared at the pile of money and colored paper. It wasn’t mine. I needed the money. It wasn’t mine. I had already escaped with it. I had to return it. The checks had to be destroyed. The checks might be replaced.

The clock said it was already 4:55 AM, with dawn only a half-hour away. Not now. Tonight.

I slept on it. During the day, I didn't think about it, but from 10 PM on, I was jittery. Reasons not to even try seemed reasonable: the theft was reported, there’ll be more vigilance. The window will be locked, so you can’t break in. The safe will be locked and you can’t just leave the money anywhere...

Midnight inched past and I gathered the bills and checks again, organizing the bills into denominations and the checks in alphabetical order. Earlier they were in order by serial numbers and amounts. I tried to watch TV, flipping channels while staring at the clock. One. One-thirty. Two.

Gathering the rumpled paper bag, I looked around, then sat down. Two-twenty. Two-forty. Time to go.

I took a circuitous route, walking at my normal pace. I didn’t spot any police cars, an odd but not unique pattern. I bought a Coke, drank it and headed for the alley. I didn’t pause at the entrance, but simply kept walking, disappearing into the darkness in seconds. Without hesitation, I tugged at the window.

It slid open. My mouth did too.

I climbed in, then shut the window. I moved quickly to the safe, and with a wry smile, twisted the dial to 38.

It clicked.

I twisted the handle as I pulled the paper bag out of its hiding place beneath my sweatshirt. Of course, the safe opened. Angry, I stuffed the bag into the tiny unlit interior and as I was about to close it, I reached up into the drawer above and rummaged until I found a piece of paper and a pen. Writing with stiff pressure, I traced six letters and an exclamation mark over and over, until the anger receded and the paper was dented and frayed.

I shoved the note on top of the money and slammed the door shut. I didn’t care if it made noise. I stalked to the window, shoved it open, jumped out and walked away. Maybe the open window, newly-locked strongbox and a note that demanded him or her to “BE SAFE!” would change their ways.

In any case, I never went back to find out.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Frodo and Gerard

Sometimes fictional characters come to you as if from on high, their reputations preceding them so that the first encounter is like meeting a celebrity. Then there are those characters that explode from the mists, leaping onto the mental stage with undeniable presence.

Frodo came recommended. From a chance encounter with The Hobbit, which I didn’t read at the time, I discovered the growing popularity of Tolkien’s creation. A few years later, I bought the books as a set and immediately plunged into it.

Not good. Although there are flashes of lyrical brilliance, The Hobbit's tone is often smarmy if not openly condescending. The adventure has a cartoony feel to it, flat yet colorful. The end result was that it put me off the trilogy for several months, until a lengthy bus ride—my last—almost forced me to find anything to do.

Starting slowly, almost ponderously, Tolkien weaves a very different tale in The Lord of the Rings. The smarmy tone is replaced with near-historical weight, a chronicler rather than chatter. And Frodo, tiny Frodo, is the golden thread that holds the story to the heart, an innocent struggling with a world beyond his ken or control. If Aragorn is the quintessence of human nobility, Frodo is that of the human soul, often battered, always challenged, but rising above it all to endure.

On a long bus ride, with a spot of light in inky darkness, Frodo carried me with him past The Tower, a shared journey unlike any other I will ever have.

Gerard, or more accurately, Brigadier Etienne Gerard, was the best rider, swordsman, adventurer and lover in Napoleon’s Grand Armeé. From the pen of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Gerard is Holmes’ equal in memorability, for despute the fact that Sherlock Holmes was the “first” of his kind and Gerard another soldier hero in a long line of warriors, Gerard is panache personified.

Told as tales of an old soldier, the set-up is perfect for romantic excesses handled deftly. Conan Doyle was always proudest of his historical writings and with Gerard, his love of history and powers of characterization are keenly displayed. With delicate tweaks at the British and French amour de guerre, Gerard swashbuckles and gamboles through his adventures, defeating the mightiest, wooing the loveliest and outshining the brightest of friends and foes across the face of a troubled Europe. Gerard is charming in his excessive self-love and pride, but his wit and eye give him a humanity we can all cherish.

Two British writers, two dissimilar characters, one obvious result: admiration. Like the ideal conclusion to blind dates—described beforehand or surprised afterward—one takes the chance and is pleased. Odd how life has a way of doing that, too.

Friday, May 27, 2005

3:16 Call

The phone rang and I automatically checked the time: 3:16 AM. I was alone, and though the shift had long ended, I didn’t hesitate to pick up. I would wonder about that for a long time.

Her voice was ragged, broken in heart and spirit, her words tumbling softly without shape. “I wanna kill myself.”

When you joined Rapline, you were told to screen such calls carefully, to explore the sentiment and situation to determine how serious the caller’s intent was. In most cases, it was simply an expression of pain, a silent scream for support. In most cases.

You were also told to never work alone, for if a caller was serious and intervention was needed, your partner would alert the authorities while you made every effort to help the person. And if the situation became critical, your only goal then was to identify who the caller was and where they were, so that your partner could lead the authorities to the emergency. If it was critical. If you had a partner.

There was no need to screen this caller. Four times before I’d dealt with a possible suicide and each time it had been a slow process of trying to help the person before they reached the point of acting. Two of those had required intervention. And here I was facing a third, because I sensed--deep inside--that the girl had already acted.

3:17 AM. And I was alone.

I asked her what had caused her such pain. Her words came slowly, as if covered with razors. She was pregnant. Told her boyfriend. A week ago. She called him constantly. No answer. Went to his apartment. He was gone. Finally called his parent’s house. In Oregon. The first call, he answered. Then hung up. She called again. Many times. Finally a woman answered. Screamed. Called her a whore. Told her to stop calling. She took pills. Many, many pills.

I asked her name. No. Told her mine. Nice name. What pills. Blue. Used to be my roommate’s. How many. A bunch. Please, how many. I didn’t count. Did they have a marking. Yeah, a letter. What letter. B or D. Maybe an E. And some red ones. I’m really tired.

3:31 AM. All we had was each other and she was fading. I gambled. “I bet your name is ‘Sally’.”

A small laugh. “Silly. My name is Beth.”

“You sound like you live on campus, like on Sorority Row.”

Snorting. “Uh-uh. Got an apartment.” She named the building. I walked past it every night as I roamed Oxford in the dark.

She started gagging. “Which apartment?” My voice was strained. Almost harsh.

She coughed and wretched. I heard a faint Two-oh-four, then: “I gotta throw up,” followed by the phone hitting wood.

I raced out of the office and leaped down the stairs. The University Police Department was on the first floor. I burst in and told the dispatcher to alert the chief, a suicide intervention and to hurry. She stared at me like I was mad. I repeated myself then raced up the stairs.

3:36 AM. Faint sounds far from the phone. Then: “I threw up.”

“Beth? Is your door locked?”

“No.”

I asked her if she had confirmed the pregnancy. Yes. If she had family nearby. No. Family in Florida. Divorced. Hadn’t seen her father in three years. She was mumbling.

3:44 AM. “Beth!”

She grunted. “I wanna die.”

I told her I wanted to die too. Then I said it again. The desperate tone was sincere. Why. I felt alone and nobody cared about me. No friends? No. Like me. No, you have a friend. Who. Me. No you’re not. I am because I’m listening and I want to help. No. I’m listening. He left me. Because I’m pregnant. And I hate him. He shouldn’t have left me. That’s true. I loved him! She started to cry, then cough.

3:52 AM. The door behind me swung open and the UPD Chief, a lanky ex-Los Angeles cop, walked in and perched a hip on the desk. I passed him a note with the details. He read it and gave me a hard, bored look. I let him listen to Beth as she continued sobbing. I nodded. He just stared at me. Then Beth howled, a ragged, raw soul in torment, screaming without hope. I saw him shiver and he tried to cover it up. He didn't see mine. Without a word, he left.

“Beth?” The phone was set down gently, clicking into emptiness. “Beth!” No dial tone. “Beth!” I was standing, sweating, trembling, willing her to answer. She had to answer.

She did. “No.” The phone thudded softly, echoing my heart.

The seconds dragged, piling upon me like yokes of despair. I called her name and listened to the drumming of my chest as the only reply. My hands became slick with anxiety. I called again and again and again, a name to momentarily stop the whirlpool of thoughts that crushed my breath: If I hadn't been alone... If I hadn't answered the phone... If I hadn't failed...

3:59 AM. A loud series of knocks. A strong voice calling out her name. “Please answer the door.” More knocks, another request and a curt “We are coming in to help you.” I heard the door open, then movement and a request for assistance. Muffled phrases in staccato: Check her pulse. Roll her over. Breathing isn’t good. Stomach pump. The bathroom’s back there. Possible overdose. Take her in now.

The phone was picked up. “Hello?”

I replied: “She told me she has a confirmed pregnancy.” A hand covered the receiver and passed the information on.

“We’re taking her in. She’s pretty serious right now, but we’ll do all we can.” He hung up.

4:04 AM. I hung up. I was alone once more.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Student Body Elections

It happened once a year, I think in the spring. Posters and flyers would circulate, The Daily Mississippian would pretend to cover “issues,” an assortment of people would knock on your dorm room door at odd hours to toss banalities at your feet and carefully-rehearsed impromptu scenes would erupt in the Student Union in support of some faceless drone or the other.

Student Body elections had all the charm of a hangnail. The best thing to do was just get it over with quickly, as painlessly as possible, understanding that there would always be a smidgen of pain in the process.

The truly annoying part of the process was the monkey fever intensity frat boys and sorority girls would display in favor of their brother/sister/third-cousin on Aunt Becky May’s side. The whole Student Body deal was a Greek thang, more a show of plumage and just as weighty in the grand scheme of things.

The independents, those of us wise enough to skip the Greek tragedy, made up a majority of the students. So for once, the Greeks had to come to us to help secure their puny ambitions. If Greeks bearing gifts were to be treated warily, Greeks with empy hands and empty smiles were to be run from.

Yet we held our ground. Some of us curtly, some of us patiently and some of us… well, some of us just had to do it our way. And in astonishing fashion, be frustrated anyway.

As many times as I was approached by a frat boy or a sorority girl and urged to vote in the STUDENT! BODY! ELECTIONS!, I would shake my head ruefully and say: “I can’t vote. I’m illegitimate.”

Eyes would glaze over, smiles would fade to blank and the usual response was a timid “Sorry” and a quick retreat to safety.

Absurdity aside, I was just aching to have one of those empty Greek urns say “Bastard,” so I could retort “It takes one to know one.”

Did I ever get to complete my pitiful little one-act play? ETA ALPHA!

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

I Want(ed) a Pipe

I can blame Tim-the-Freudian for the inspiration, but only me for the continuance. Tim was the only person I knew who smoked a pipe and many times I was able to find him around campus by the trail his particular brand of tobacco left behind.

Tim was a graduate psychology student, stocky of build and thinning of hair. He affected an almost comical seriousness to his role as embryonic brainbuster and it was often amusing to see him struggle to avoid jumping into a situation with both Freudian feet.

Our friendship was sporadic, with frequent meetings for two weeks then a disconnect that could last two months. One summer I sub-let the apartment he had in the old two-story house Miz Evelyn owned across from the Oxford Cemetery. I saw him four times that summer, always harassed, as his summer internship turned him from amiable gadfly to lumbering oaf, a process that became irreversible.

Tim smoked a pipe like some people get tattoos. He was fussy about tobacco and sometimes finicky about pipes, but it was the ritual that intrigued me: the selection of just the right amount of tobacco, the careful packing, the oddly-lengthened lighter flicking to life, the rhythmic puffing and careful nurturing until the pipe was well-lit and clouds of smoke began attacking the surroundings.

I marveled at the smoothness of the wood, the rich grain, the careful shaping of bowls and stems, the artistry of bringing together diverse materials to create an instrument so powerfully experiential. When Tim got a job at The Smoke Shop—wooden Indian and all—he turned the experience into his own little psych lab and I used his meandering theories to cover my intense scrutiny of dozens of pipes.

I even tinkered with the idea of making my own pipe, buying a kit as a way of spending quiet hours in careful craftsmanship. But though I spent many months lingering over the idea, the reality of actually smoking a pipe—and how I would look doing so—always stopped me. A pipe would be a burden and as useful a prop for me as a paintbrush to a monkey.

The day I let the idea die I was having lunch with Tim at a restaurant with a prominent salad bar. An elderly couple walked up to it, the woman muttering a mile a minute, poking at the salad items, the dressings, vegetables and bread, always criticizing. The man carefully carried their tray to a nearby table, his face a wooden mask of disinterest. The woman filled her plate, then one for her husband, words machine-gunning the air. They sat down and the pattern continued: her mouth, his mask.

Tim and I watched in silence. Finally, their meal ended, the man gathered the tray and disposed of the trash. They left as they had appeared: her mouth, his mask. Tim took the pipe out of his mouth and pointed with it at the couple. “You’d think she was the head case, but she’s not that off.” He puffed on the pipe, then pointed with it again. “He, on the other hand, is certifiable. He is way past normal. I wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up taking an axe to her.”

He tapped the pipe on the table. “I know these things.” I looked at the tobacco flakes and ashes sprawled across the tabletop. Maybe he was right; I sensed he was. But the pipe? Overkill.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

God is Black

Silly me: I thought college classes were for exploring concepts. I quickly learned that the sheep want to graze quietly and that some of them are actually venomous when aroused.

A Basic Logic class, in an auditorium half-filled with breathing bodies, me perched in the highest back row, wondering how far I could jump. The class had two speakers: the professor and me. Everyone else spoke if spoken to, and maybe not even then. At the point in a lecture where the professor was describing arguments that are unsupportable and unassailable by logic, he asked for an example.

“God is black,” I said.

You could hear heads snapping around to look up at me. The professor cleared his throat strongly and said the example was correct and that positions such as th—-

What did he say?” growled a voice somewhere to my right.

Before the professor could interrupt, I repeated: “God is black.”

There are moments when you see a disconnected group come together, a mass of people barely aware of each other all of a sudden discovering a common focus, a menace maybe, like a fire or a fistfight. When that focus centers on a person, when the random stillness and movements instantly coalesce into a current flowing at the focus, you have the beginnings of a mob.

Words erupted first.

“What the hell?”
What did he say?”
Black? Like a nigger?”
“Fucking crazy!”
No way! The black guy say it?”
“Quiet, please.” The professor spoke alone, quite loudly.
“That’s wrong! Wrong! He can’t be right! God can’t be black!”

I chose to answer that one. “God can’t be black? I thought God was omnipotent.”

“He can’t be black!”

I rolled my eyes. “Somebody explain ‘ominipotent’ to this redneck.”

“God is white because He’s white in all the paintings!” She seemed on the verge of tears. I let that one pass.

“Quiet! Please!” The incipient mob herded right to look at him. He gave me a dirty look and I waved cheerfully. He proceeded to indicate that the example, though “touchy,” was valid. A few grumbles rippled through the classless room. I was ready as he asked “Any other examples?”

“God is a woman.”

Stunned. Until the professor slammed a hand on his podium and roared “That’s enough! Confine your examples to general topics!”

I smirked. “Oh, you want us to think as you do and not freely as we’re supposed to?” Cheap shot, but it was there. The former mob suddenly perked up, sensing their grazing grounds were not as green as they had believed.

With visible effort, the professor willed himself under control. “I am hear to teach Logic, not start a debating group.”

I nodded. “Yeah. Not enough brains in here for a debating group.” Some furious looks told me I had crossed the line.

Class continued and at the end, as the group filed out with stares and glares at me, the professor pulled me over. “Why did you do that?”

I looked out the door at the small group of guys waiting for me and decided to skip to the end. “I could have said God was a black woman.” I shrugged away from him and went to meet the “debaters.”

Monday, May 23, 2005

The Hoka

It was as out-of-place as a tuxedo in a barnyard. To call it a throw-back would be to imply it actually had a shred of contact with current life. At its best, The Hoka was a timewarp, a pocket of illusion in a world that had begun to move wholeheartedly towards cynicism. At its worst—and it was often at its worst—The Hoka was the trash heap of discarded dreams.

The only word to describe its presence was “sprawl.” It didn’t sit so much as it oozed against the rising land, a tent made of wood, shingles, drywall and spit with the charm of an aging hooker who’d discovered the joys of basket-weaving. Part bar, part restaurant, part hangout, part theater and all Hoka.

My first visit there was like walking into fish guts. The air itself felt sticky, none the least for the obvious cloud of smoke that lingered above and beyond the bar. We ordered coffee with chickory, New Orleans-style, and the heavy mug was cracked to the point where creamy liquid seeped out like a tired tear. Around me appeared, disappeared and re-appeared relics of a bad memory: aging faces, stooped shoulders, emaciated bodies of the time when peace and love and drugs and rock and roll were virtually one magical amalgam. Long hair turning gray, tied back into ragged ponytails or hanging loose like dried kelp. Tie-dyed clothing desperate for patching. Sandals with blackened outlines of ancient sweat.

We ordered food. My choice was hamburger, rare, a choice that can only be deemed insane. It arrived wrapped in goat cheese, or something spewed, on buns that weighed a pound each surrounding a piece of meat so charred it should have been a paperweight. Two bites confirmed the cheese, the taste of wet cardboard and that paperweights are not food.

Music drifted in and out of the smoke, interruptus. A song would begin, the hazy tribe would oooh and then the music would fade to dreamy smiles. Notes plunked and clinked through the air, vying for escape. Then another song would begin, the ooohs, the fadeout, the dreamy smiles. Over and over.

We ordered more coffee and my mug had no handle. The movie was about to begin, the classic Humphrey Bogart in “The Maltese Falcon.” Popcorn appeared out of the dark, a Hoka gift that felt vaguely menacing. Tim-the-Freudian warned me that sometimes the reels were shown out of order and we sat on chairs that kept their shape out of sheer stubborness. The screen was a patched set of sheets that behind them had the parking lot. No walls, just a sheet. The Hoka never closed.

The movie began. Not even this smoky hovel could erase the snappy dialogue, the quick wit and sheer magnetism of Bogey, Sydney and Peter as they chased “the black bird.” But at the chase’s peak, Bogey doesn’t take the fall, the stuff dreams are made of is center-screen and then the tense apartment scene where the gunsel is sold down the river makes its play. Nobody said a word, and when the third reel ends, we get up and leave past the screen, into the dingy, sweet-smelling night. We didn’t pay for anything and we walked away in heavy silence.

At The Hoka, dreams came first and the sell-out last. Every day.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Fencing Wounds

I took up fencing in 1986 as a way of trying a new sport. Always a fan of swordsmanship, I quickly discovered that fencing was serious effort, not trivial play, and that I enjoyed the challenges immensely.

I quickly became the second-best fencer in our small group and trained harder with our Captain, an accomplished modern pentathlete. One Wednesday evening, after sweating out a grueling 20-minute session, he asked me if I wanted to compete in a fencing tournament. I agreed instantly.

The tournament was held in New Orleans. A large, stuffy gym served as the stage for an old-fashioned club challenge, a “them-against-us” day of fencing with human judges instead of electric machines. The local club had about 30 members and though ours was half as big, only 5 of us had made the trip. We decided on a round-robin format, by divisions, and began fencing.

My first match pitted me against a burly, wide-bodied fencer. Because of the other matches, all the judges in ours were his club members. I noticed this, slipped on my mask and we began. My style was quite aggressive, relying on my reflexes and footwork to streak in and make rapid lunges. Almost immediately I scored and at my pause, he lunged at my chest. “Point.”

I returned to my spot when I noticed I was down 0-1. I questioned it, but the guy behind my opponent, who should have seen my touch, shook his head. Settling in, we resumed. Again I made a fast approach and scored, only to have the point awarded to my opponent, by the same “judge.” Down 0-2. The mask seemed to fade away as I attacked, scoring clearly on my opponent without him touching me in return. And once again, the same bastard shook his head, denying me the point.

I removed my mask to stare at him. Bad form. Like I cared. He pushed his glasses up, crossed his arms over his chest and avoided my eyes. He knew. The match resumed and I eventually lost 2-5. I should have won by that score. My first true fencing match and I had lost.

Four more matches and I won them all easily. Then my final match and as the luck of the draw would have it, my opponent was the near-sighted bastard of my first match. I almost ran to the strip. We shook hands and he gave me a weak smile. I was ready. Masks on, we began.

In an instant, I knew I could beat him. But I wanted more. With cold certainty, I created an attack pattern—up, down, side, then down—and kept it going until I scored. We resumed and I kept the same pattern, but scored from another angle. I did the same on the third point. And as he again assumed his en garde position, I knew had him. I started advancing, sword high. He stepped back. I closed and started my pattern: up, down, side… He went down and I immediately lunged, sword straight, my entire body a line of furious thrust from foil tip to left foot. I aimed through him, the tip slamming into the vest exactly where his heart was. As if punched by a heavyweight, he slumped back and fell down clumsily.

I straightened up slowly, the rush of energy flowing down and away. He groaned, grabbing his chest and his teammates came over. Edward, our captain, looked at me, his eyes boring into mine. Quickly, the bastard’s friends removed vest, sweatshirt and T-shirt. I stepped off the strip to wait. They left.

I won that match by forfeit and made it to the finals, where once again I faced the same stocky guy… with four of his club members as judges. I noticed no one from my club volunteered to judge and Edward couldn’t do it because he’d lost to the stocky guy in the semi-finals. I scored 9 times, but lost 4-5. What a surprise. The stocky guy even apologized.

As I was packing my gear, the near-sighted bastard ambled over slowly, his face a mask of pain. He kept rubbing his chest, just above the heart. “Look,” he pouted, raising his sweatshirt and T-shirt to show me an already-bruised and swelling plum-sized knot on his pasty flesh. “You hurt me!”

I stared back at him until he lowered his shirts and started to shuffle his feet. Surprisingly, he extended his hand.

“I was aiming for more,” I said and walked away, his hand ignored.

Bad form. Like I cared.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

A 100 Degree Summer

Growing up in Puerto Rico inures you to heat, as the blazing sun and high humidity wrap you like a damp blanket 270 days a year. I played all kinds of sports under Puerto Rico's summer sun, so walking around Oxford in the summer was fun. Even as the temperature slipped above 100 degrees, the relatively low humidity made it easy to live in.

Bill was also very comfortable in the mid-year sun, so in the summer of 1981, we began to play tennis as soon as the temperature topped 100. I think it was his idea, but I certainly jumped at it enthusiastically. Neither of us was really a good player and we actually had more fun whacking balls with exaggerated swings than trying to emulate classical play.

Several times that summer I'd be walking to the court and see people sitting on porches, fanning themselves with the slow desperate rhythm of the overcome. I stifled the urge to wave, for wasn't I blessed with youth, vim, vigor and a pleasant attraction to high infrared? Why rub it in? I'm smiling smugly now, just as I did then. (I didn't wave, but I smiled. Oh did I smile!)

What began as a day's impulsive whim soon stretched to three days, then six, eight and ten. Day after day, the heavy-handed heat slapped itself upon North Mississippi and sure enough, as the mercury hit triple digits, Bill and I hit the courts. Once we were able to determine that the temperature on the court was close to 125 degrees, the concrete slab almost clutching at us with wavy fingers of heat. And we played on.

Eleven, twelve, fourteen. Two full weeks of the longest heat wave in recent memory and we were as regular as two of those mechanical cuckoos. We played at least for an hour, often for two or more, a couple of young men just sharing time, space and the occasional metronome of ball over net.

Day fifteen. By noon, the temperature soared over 100 degrees and less than 20 minutes later, we were on the court. For almost an hour we engaged in our usual thwacking and wise-cracking play, when suddenly I began feeling tight, as if my stomach and leg muscles had turned to wood. I played through it and when I turned to pick up balls against the back fence, I slumped. Holding on with nerveless fingers kept me from falling. I didn't notice Bill standing next to me until he spoke.

I told him I was okay and let go of the fence. He asked me if it could be the heat and I gave him a look. But no retort emerged. With a touch of humility as new as the next minute, I nodded. Maybe. He asked me if I wanted to stop. I chuckled and said our streak had to go on. I took a deep breath, picked up the balls and we played on.

After 17 days, the temperature peaked at 98, then dropped to 95-97 for several days. It did hit 100 one more time and we didn't miss that. Our streak was intact, a tennis summer in the highest heat. It was a lark, an adventure, a deepened friendship and a lesson: I am not immune. Slow learner that I am, I needed several reminders before I got it right.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Australian Rules Football

At 4 AM, TV used to be a wasteland. Even with the advent of cable, the darkest hours were populated by black-and-white B-movies, odd reruns and the occasional preacher desperate for attention. It isn’t much better now, because the peak moment of pre-dawn TV was Australian Rules Football.

ESPN was barely gaining momentum when, without fanfare, they started showing tapes of a sport that combined the high-impact action of rugby with the high-scoring drama of basketball and was simply mesmerizing to watch. Rugged guys in colorful uniforms of sleeveless T-shirts and shorts would run down and across an oval field, passing a large ovoid ball by punching it like a weak volleyball serve, by kicking it through the air or—daringly—by dribbling it in mid-run. Points were scored by kicking the ball throught two tall uprights or between a tall upright and a shorter one. Referees in long white coats and perky hats would indicate the score with mechanical gestures pre-dating “The Robot.”

Without explanation, with color commentary that assumed you were an Aussie fan and simply added to player bios that read like excised drafts of a Crocodile Dundee script, the action and intensity drew you in almost against your will. The play never stopped, and like in soccer, injuries (a few a game) were tended to on the field. I once saw a player knocked down, start getting attention from the trainer, only to bolt up and try to tackle an opponent and get even more viciously knocked out, forcing the trainer to sigh deeply, pick up his equipment bag and run over to the new mid-field “bedside.”

The hand-passing and dribbling seemed quaint and awkward, but the real drama was in “marks,” kicks that soared high and far across the field and were secured by players jumping like—well, kangaroos—to catch it in mid-air. The catches were not unchallenged: short of grabbing the other player, anything went. I saw a player run, leap, plant his left foot in the opposing player’s back for greater height and catch the ball while slamming the opponent to the turf, a catch so spectacular it was shown before and after almost every game.

Scores were often 80 points or higher per team as each goal was worth 6 points and a “behind” worth 1 point. Momentum could and did shift often and in one spectacular match, a league doormat overcame a 36 point deficit in the closing minutes to defeat a perennial winner, a sort of “Cubs beat the Yankees” scenario that was thrilling to watch. So what if I couldn’t tell one team from the other? I know a great game when I see one.

And so did thousands of others, especially in Australia. Despite its size (about 20% smaller than the States), Down Under is not nearly as populated as you might think. At the time, the total population of the country was around 14 million persons, and yet, these matches often had attendance that numbered over 100,000 fans. To give you an idea of what that really means, imagine a Sunday football game in Green Bay… with 12 million fans in the Stadium. All of them cheering, waving, singing, screaming, swaying and stomping their feet in the best soccer-crowd tradition.

The games were exciting, the marks were often spectacular, the close-ups of players who were “veterans” after 20 games and looked like middle-aged hockey players though they were 24 or 25, the drama of athletes playing hard because pride demanded no less and the sheer fun of being able to watch all this at 4 in the freakin’ morning was too much to pass up. But eventually, Life changed its rhythm, ESPN changed its schedule and Aussie Rules Football dropped off my radar. Still, the sporting excitement and pageantry remain a vivid, happy memory of the night’s quietest time.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Letters

In those days before e-mail swamped us and placed letter-writing in a comatose state, I wrote letters, actual pieces of paper covered by my handwriting (such as it was) or my Smith-Corona’s inky output. They were often monologues—as letters tend to be—but always ended in a P.S., or two or eleven, although I once wrote a letter that was 98% P.S. (That’s “P,” okay?)

I wrote well over 300 hundred letters over a five year period, averaging 5 a month. The bulk of those letters I wrote to Carol, filled with anecdotes, tweaks (I bugged her a lot!), sports news, asides, feelings and low comedy. She wrote back often and the long-distance dialogue, the closing of space too vast for me to contain, went far towards healing my first bouts of loneliness.

I wrote to my mom, letters that let me express my feelings in a light manner, trying to hide my moments of pain or confusion and doing as good a job at that as is possible when a mother’s instinct has an uncanny way of seeing straight to the truth. Letters to my dad were military reports: long on facts, short on interpretation. He usually answered on the back of deposit slips that he got at the bank, often sent to me in bank envelopes he scratched the return address from and always with a stamp he charmed from a bank officer. A lady bank officer, of course.

My sister got more emotional letters, ones where I expressed concerns about her and about me. We seldom wrote as each tried to establish a space of one’s own, separate from family. As my sister kept mom and dad in the dark about many things (she was geographically closer, but emotionally more distant at the time, the opposite of my case), it was up to me to sound her out and pass on the “all clear,” true or not.

Letters to a high school friend were exercises in the excess of “one word.” Using my Smith-Corona and time, I wrote him letters that were one word, with no separation or punctuation between the letters. After the straight-through version, one letter was one word that spiraled in to the center of the page. Later I wrote a letter that had to be read vertically, again with no separations or punctuations. Another had to be read following the line from the front to the back, then back to the front again, a spiral across both sides of the paper. And my last, greatest effort, had a diagonal pattern, starting in the upper right corner and spiraling over both sides of the paper, ending in the lower left corner. And these were not random efforts either: I told him and his family my news, observations and thoughts, all within the exact confines of the pages and format. He still has them.

Another friend who kept my letters was Joeann. I flirted with her outrageously when we were in school together (her boyfriend was my friendly sports “nemesis”) and I did the same in my letters, behaving like a sex-mad fiend who was just a split-second away from conquering her with his animal magnetism. (Comedy is often based on reality.) (Often, not always.) Years later, Joeann told me she had kept the letters and when sadness or depression gripped her, she would read the letters and eventually start laughing, sometimes until she cried. She even showed me the creased, almost split pages, carefully tucked in their envelopes and wrapped in a linen handkerchief.

But the strongest emotional impact I’ve felt about my letters happened many years after the fact. My dad’s only sister and I wrote to each other 4-5 times a year. Some 15 years after I left college and stopped writing letters, I went to visit my aunt in San Francisco. We spoke about her dead husband, Jack, a former Air Force pilot who I only met twice, but with whom I traded news through my aunt. I knew Jack thought highly of me, but not much else, so I asked her to tell me more about him. She told me that even when his health faded badly and he didn’t even want to watch television, Jack would perk up whenever one of my letters arrived. He would ask her to read them aloud and laugh at my my comments and sarcasm. Sometimes he would ask her to pull out older letters and read them, too. The week before he died, she gathered all my letters and read them to Uncle Jack, one after the other, to take his mind off the pain of his dying. His soft laughter echoed hers, she said. That night he slept soundly for the last time.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Cheerleaders

They swarmed on campus like a multi-headed creature, with an odd number of heads and legs. They tittered, giggled, cheered, tittered, screeched, tittered, shrieked, clapped and did I mention they tittered? They moved in herds with amoeba-like fluctuations that were appealing and disturbing to watch.

They were high school girls on a college campus... where there were college men. Even I qualified as an interesting specimen when that broad a definition was used. The occasional exchange was a break from routine for me and an anecdote in the fall for them.

One Tuesday afternoon, passing the Student Union, a voice from a cheerleader herd called out in a cloud of laughter: “Would you date me?”

“Only if you’re naked!” I yelled back, causing even greater clouds of laughter and setting off a flutter of spastic gyrations.

The top moment in my mind was sitting in the cafeteria with Bill, in our usual next-to-the-entrance table. The place was almost empty when four cheerleaders came in, a grand total of nine inches separating all four heads from each other, their legs choreographed in some instinctive way so that every step landed where it should. They were dressed up in what I could only describe as “informal teenage chic,” a fashion trend that changes every eleven days (except in big cities where it changes every six.)

I was ruminating about something to say as they walked by, an integrated unit of teenage vanity, when Bill yelled out “Look at them! They think they’re pretty!”

The girls wilted. Wilted, I tell you. In the time it took them to walk twenty feet they went from “fabulous” to “failures,” their body language a visual apology for being in our midst.

I turned to Bill and said “That was cruel.” He looked at me, impassive. I shook my head and added “I wish I’d said it!”

I brought that up when we saw each other recently and he told me his top cheerleader moment was something I’d done. We were sitting on the window ledge up at the office, the summer heat forcing a search for some less-stale air. A group of some 15 cheerleaders herded by and as they passed near us, I let out a wolf whistle. Heads snapped in my direction and smiles flashed. Then I yelled “Not you!”

Heads snapped back and some dropped. Postures slumped. But as Bill so keenly remembers, one girl had not turned to seek out the whistler. And as the herd moved on, her smile made it clear that my little jest had very much made her day. Maybe even the whole summer.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Computer Football

This is complicated: While at Rapline, I answered a call from a young lady who complained bitterly about her boyfriend, a computer geek who treated her like dirt. We spoke three nights in a row and as chance would screw it, I sat next to her in the computer center later the third night. I recognized her voice and name and before I could escape, she recognized my voice and broke through the veil of secrecy that should separate Rapline from the world.

Her boyfriend, Steve, was the quintessential nerd: pencil-neck, glasses, mussed-up hair and the social skills of an aardvark. A lot like me, actually. The computer center was his living room and this was back in the days of mainframes, green-tinted monitors, BASIC, FORTRAN, COBOL and line-by-line debugging of programs with under a hundred lines.

Mae, Steve’s tolerant victim, sort of let it slip that “Ben” was, well, interesting. Steve, with some inane and ill-suited jealousy, wanted to make something of it. But he couldn’t fight his way into a paper bag, so he was not about to physically challenge me, even if I did match him as a welterweight. He let it come out that nobody, n-o-b-o-d-y, could beat him at Computer Football.

Now Steve was a heavyweight in the computer division and I was barely a flyweight, but that wasn’t going to stop me from taking on the feeb. Not for Mae, who was not only unattractive, she was snotty. (Steve was lucky to have her.) It was because the challenge was flung at me by someone who couldn’t sniff my jock when it comes to sports.

Steve sat in a corner of the 24-terminal center; I sat in the middle of the right-hand wall. Maybe it was my imagination, but the scattered few were behaving like a showdown was happening at the OKilobyte Corral. The game came up, all text. Steve “won” the toss and elected to receive.

Nine plays later, he had scored a touchdown. I received and two plays later, he intercepted, then scored on the next play. I was down 14-0 and there was about 6 minutes left in the first quarter. I received, drove downfield and with a second-and-goal, Steve intercepted the screen pass and scored again. It was now 21-zip and I was about to punch my way through the monitor.

Steve, great guy that he was, was yakking it up, reiterating that he was simply unbeatable at the “real” kind of football, the mental game that separated the men from the boys. I wanted to separate his manhood from any future of spawning boys…or girls. Mae, who had been sitting at the far end of the room and had told me she would love for me to beat Steve badly, had now moved and was sitting three seats away from Steve. Bitch.

The second quarter started and I was able to manage a field goal, but Steve matched it: 24-3. I drove to the 4 and on third-and-2, I ran a roll-out pass play and to my utter astonishment, the pass was intercepted and run back for a touchdown. 31-3, 44 seconds left in the first half and Steve was cackling softly, his arm around Mae. Bitch. And so was Mae.

At that moment, Bill, a silent observer of the proceedings, said “You’re playing football. This is computer football.” I nodded, my anger freezing into a cold spike aimed directly at Steve.

The return was to my 34, and knowing that Steve expected a deep pass, I ran a sweep. Then another, a sideline pass and then a slant and I scored with 4 seconds to go. 31-10. The second half started with me receiving and again I mixed plays nearly at random and scored again: 31-17. I kicked onside, recovered and scored in five plays: 31-24. The cackling had long been silenced and Steve’s keyboard was getting abused. I kicked off and after giving up good yardage, intercepted and scored in four plays. The game was tied, the scattered denizens of computerland had gathered around me and Mae had been shoved aside as Steve cursed a blue streak. Nasty temper in that boy.

He managed a field goal to go ahead 34-31, but as the fourth quarter started, I nailed him again and took the lead 38-34. For several minutes I was the distinct center of geek worship…and then the computer crashed. Steve immediately left the center as some über-geek in charge came rushing in to ask what had happened. I didn’t know, but everyone else seemed to.

Mae gathered her books and walked out without a word.

A couple of weeks later, I entered the computer center and Steve was thrashing another geek on the virtual football field. He cackled that he was invincible, and after a few minutes, he turned and saw me. His words died out and a dry chuckle from somewhere preceded a “Yeah, but you can’t beat him without crashing the store.” Steve said something crude and left.

It was the shallowest of victories. But it sure as hell beat the other option.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Day John Lennon Died

I was bowling the sixth frame of my third game and it wasn’t going well. My first game had been a bust, the second even worse and so far in the third game, I was making my first two look like masterpieces.

The radio over the loudspeakers squawked, then an oddly-detached voice came on and read a statement. I took a shot, left pins standing and as I turned to mumble a curse, the words drifted into my brain: John Lennon had been killed.

I looked up. Of the 20 or so people in the bowling alley, no one was reacting. The same thing had happened in March when then-President Reagan had been shot. I was sitting in the cafeteria that day, the news came on and though some 25-30 people must have heard it, no one said anything or even tried to find out if the news was true.

As if aware of my doubt—of the doubts of so many—the news item was read again, each word a separate tile placed in a mosaic of collective pain. John Lennon, ex-Beatle and symbol of a generation, had been shot and killed outside his Manhattan apartment building. The shooter, a fan, had been arrested and was being interrogated.

No one seemed to care. I bowled quickly, the change of pace actually improving my game so that I finished with my best score of the night. I paid and got back to my room.

When Don came in, I told him the news. In his characteristic way, he avoided looking at me and said “I don’t believe you.” I knew Don was a fan, not obsessed, but a true fan, and I never expected he wouldn’t believe me. He thought I was joking. I told him I didn’t joke like that, but he still refused to believe me. I had to sit down.

Don left and when he came back a couple of hours later, he told me he’d heard the news. He apologized and I made a feeble attempt to wave it off. I was still hurt, but the intervening time had made me wonder what about me would create the impression that stupid and pointless behavior, almost cruel in intent, was part of my make-up. I didn’t have to think for long. Not to find evidence, that is. Beyond a doubt, there was plenty to think about afterward.

We never mentioned the incident again, or if we did, it made no impression on me. But in a rare moment of lucid and mature introspection, I could deem Don’s paining disbelief as understandable. A moment of shared tragedy yielded to me some much-needed perspective. Sometimes you are given gifts in unlikely packages. Don is as unlikely a package as could ever come your way, but without a doubt, he is a gift.

Non-refundable. Believe me, I tried.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

11:57

Bill urged me to join and being the son of an Air Force veteran (retired), I figured it would be a good experience. Forget the fact that I already had longish hair and an aversion to clothing more complicated than jeans, T-shirts and sneakers, and that my idea of disciplined behavior was limiting my sarcasm to only several forays a day. Air Force ROTC was waiting for me.

In some mysterious way, I lasted a year. Despite the long hair that gave me the moniker of “Custer,” (yet never to my face), a laissez-faire attitude towards “gung ho” activity and no interest in pursuing a career where brown-nosing was a requirement, I occupied a space in the Air Force’s universe for those nine months. A full-term stillborn, if you will.

The second semester we had a Phys. Ed. requirement of running a mile and a half in under 12 minutes. I noted the fact, then promptly ignored it, even when it was mentioned ever so often. I must point out that despite my love of sports, running just for the sake of running was idiocy to me. I could run all day on a baseball field, a basketball or tennis court or on a beach playing touch football all afternoon, but running just to get back to where you started from? Puh. Leez.

Suddenly one morning, Bill tells me that the final day for the P.E. requirement was that day; in fact, that the timed trial was going on at that moment. I threw sarcasm his way, missed and went to the Rebel Coliseum.

Several LeMay-wannabes were gathered, a few holding stopwatches. Nothing like redundancy. I walked up and said I had to run and their glances were almost interested enough to be perfunctory. One nodded and said I could start anytime. I dropped my notebook on the ground and started running, although I was dressed for day, not sports. Someone had told me 12 laps around the dingy dome was the requirement, so a minute a lap was required. Woop-de-doo.

I ran with a blur of anger in my head. Stupidstupidstupidstupid was the rhythm of my run. I noticed one poor sap, red-faced and heaving as he lugged fat and gristle around with two buddies encouraging him every two seconds. Along the way, I heard another trial was set for late afternoon, so runners who failed now could try again. I shook my head: I’d do it now or forget it.

Time passed and I kept my rhythm. I lapped the heavy-legged sap whose buddies were now pleading with him to go on, to pick up the pace, to make it happen. I lost track of the laps as my pace never changed and I kept running, just running, doing nothing but running.

I passed my timekeeper who raised one finger. “Last one!” he told me. I ran on. Then, as I passed the halfway point of the final lap, I heard a yell. “Seventeen seconds to go!” I immediately kicked into a sprint, passing the lumbering trio and racing to whatever passed for a finish line. I pulled around the final turn and accelerated as I passed my timekeeper, who clicked his stopwatch and nodded. I took several more steps to slow down, then walked over. As I did, the trio went by me. A collective groan washed past me. “Twelve nine.” Lumberjock had failed.

I was handed a clipboard with my name and 11:57 next to it. Uh-huh. I signed, the timekeeper signed and I picked up my notebook. The trio was now a duet as the main character had collapsed to the ground, his whole body heaving for breath. I heard someone say “You can do it this afternoon.”

In a car, I said to no one in particular. As I walked to the cafeteria, I noted I hadn’t even broken a sweat.