Monday, April 23, 2018

My Redacted Life: Chapter Two (Cont. _2)

Out of the military a couple of weeks, I was getting restless. Here I was, one foot out the door heading back to California, and the other responding to a mother’s request to find work in my hometown. Mothers win. Always.

It was early December of 1970, and she had convinced me to make one more try at dropping anchor at what she saw as life's safest harbor—home.

I wasn’t optimistic. So, far, the folks in Arkansas hadn’t been real impressed with either my qualifications or my veteran status. I had been four years away and my puny Bachelor of Arts Degree seemed a distant and impotent achievement. Peers who had evaded the Draft had been learning and earning for four years while I languished, or so it seemed to me then.

The Honorable Discharge, such a proud achievement and sine qua non of my youth was now being pretty much translated as “chump.”

But my cousin Troy, with whom I was very close, worked for the city and knew the Director of the Urban Renewal Agency in Pine Bluff, a nice fellow named Charles Rush. Troy had arranged for me to meet the director and discuss the potential for meaningful work in the state. It was rumored that he knew a lot of people.

So, I bundled up and headed to the city’s new civic center. It, at the time, was a proud new addition to the city, designed by the architectural firm of Edward D. Stone, until then perhaps the most famous architect produced by our state. It was an extremely unfunctional facility that hasn’t stood up well, but that’s another story.

Mr. Rush welcomed me into his office graciously. I didn’t own a suit, and a needy shipmate had stolen most of my civilian clothes just before I left the service. I did borrow a tie from my father. I think he had purchased it for funerals back in the 1950s. I’m sure I made a splendid appearance.

No, Mr. Rush explained, there wasn’t much work for a college graduate with no special qualifications in the area. I had pretty much decided that on my own, but thanked him for his insight. His office, he said was fully staffed and he knew of no positions available anywhere.

We talked, I could almost hear the sounds of foghorns from ships heading west through the Golden Gate and taste the salty fog of my beloved San Francisco. I had tried, Mother, so take that and grant me my freedom.

I thanked Mr. Rush for his time and began, mentally, to assess the route I would take to the West. Arkansas had a new governor who seemed willing to continue the progressive programs started by his predecessor. I wished the best for my home state, but California was a big place and opportunities seemed to grow on trees there. I had even been able to find a job in “The City” while I was burdened with a 1A status (Same-same Goodbye my Darling, Hello Vietnam) from my local Draft Board.

Just imagine what a free man could do there.

I had a hand on the office door when Mr. Rush said, “Wait a minute. Would you be interested in working in Little Rock?”

I thought I was marketable,
 but to whom?

Sunday, April 22, 2018

A Break

It’s Sunday and I’ll take a day off from the story of my professional life. Maybe I’ll mention my political and religious preferences instead.

I’m a lifelong Democrat. I would have voted for Winthrop Rockefeller had I been home at the time. But since I’ve been in Arkansas, I’ve only pulled an “R” once. That was during a minor conspiracy designed to rid the state of one of the worst disgraces in our political history, second only perhaps to Orval Faubus. There not being major controversies in the Democratic primary once upon a time, many folks switched primaries to rid the state of Arkansas of the further shame of Tommy Robinson. Can’t blame me for that, can you? I sincerely believe I have always voted from conscience and not from hatred.

Because of my personal history and beliefs, I will never vote for a member of the party that allowed the scurrilous attacks upon the patriotism and military service of my brother and shipmate John Kerry, known as “The Swift Boat Attacks.” I apologize for my intractability, but it is a decision both carefully and deliberately made.

I subscribe primarily to progressive ideas. I do share my conservative friends’ apprehension of over-regulation. I think this occurs, to a large degree from the failure of American government to establish a policy and strategy structure that might find bi-lateral agreement. For example, we have no workable transportation policy, much less do we have a compassionate and workable national policy on the criminal justice system.

Consequently, our highways face imminent obsolescence and we incarcerate people at a rate higher than any country should contemplate. We jail people for long periods of time when, for most, a short period would be just as effective. On the regulation side, we have a vast army of bureaucrats who see their job not as one of problem solving but simply one of writing regulations. And when one sees one’s job as that of writing regulations, they … will … write regulations, whether they make sense or not.

The can backfire into a knee-jerk revolt against regulations of any sort, even badly needed ones. I fear that is what we are seeing now.

I do not despise taxes, believing, as did Oliver Wendell Holmes, that they buy us civilization. I do despise the wasting of tax dollars. In this area, let him who is without sin …

To the other point, I’m not a big fan of organized religion. I do, however, vote more in harmony with the Sermon on the Mount and the 25th Chapter of Matthew than upon the execrable rantings of Ayn Rand.

To those on either the Left or Right that pass falsehoods, personal attacks, mean-spirited postings, racists comments, or outright slander on social media: we must strive to do better.

Here is where I think I differ from many friends on the other side of politics:

Based on my education and analysis, I disagree with the policies, style, personal behavior, statements, and unwillingness to heal America, as exhibited by Donald Trump. It is my personal conclusion that America will suffer for years because of his lack of leadership. I find him shallow, vindictive, slippery, mercurial, and mendacious.

Please form your own opinion and act accordingly. I gave four years of my life to protect that privilege. I believe in the right of all to examine the facts as I have done, come to their own reasonable decisions, and vote. We differ in conclusions, not in brotherhood.

Now for the challenge …

President Trump is supposedly planning a sit-down with Kim Jong-un, the Supreme Leader of North Korea, a country with which America has been at war since the 1950s, and which now has nuclear weapons. The purpose of the talks is to seek a more harmonious relationship between the two countries.

In contrast with many friends of the opposite political party, as per my observations during the presidency of Barrack Obama …

I do sincerely hope the President of the United States is successful in the talks.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

My Redacted Life: Chapter Two

Out of the navy at last, and having dispensed with all the greetings, I settled into my boyhood home to contemplate my future as a civilian. Marrying Bridgette Bardot was probably out, as was making tryouts with the New York Yankees.

One childhood dream remained, but, sadly, my thoughts of becoming a fireman (yeah fire “man,” this was 1970) had been sullied by the experience of actually fighting fires as part of my job as a sailor in the United States Navy. Real soot up your nose ain’t as romantic as it might seem.

Picking the guitar on the Grand Ole Opry was probably out as well. I wasn’t that good at photography or writing and had minimal talent in architecture, my college major.

Someone suggested that I file for unemployment while I studied on things and used up all my “beer money.” I had nothing better to do, so I went down and applied.

It was the most humiliating experience of my life other than walking on stage in school play with my fly unzipped.

Silly me. I thought unemployment, which is paid for by employers, was for those who were temporarily out of work due to no fault of their own. Back then, those seeking the benefit were classified, at least in 1970s Arkansas, as somewhere between Republicans and dope fiends, that is to say they weren’t welcomed into polite society. After numerous trips waiting for hours in a room with no chairs, a smug old bitch in frosted hair told me they didn’t pay unemployment to veterans, particularly my type of veteran. When I asked what type of veteran that was, she chose not to answer. She just arched her false eyebrows and smiled.

But I knew. It was a response to which I had become accustomed. There was just this weird and caged-up resentment for what we, my brothers and I, had done on orders from our country. Maybe we acted smug, or expected to be treated like folks had treated the WWll veterans when we were growing up. Maybe one of us had insulted a member of the National Guard. Some regulars, never I of course, did call them “Chicken-shit peckerheads.” Maybe a relative had been killed and we were somehow held responsible because we were still alive. Maybe they thought we directed the nation’s international relations policy and gave orders to “Pencil-Dick” McNamara.

When I applied for work with AT&T®, this smirkey little bastard told me there were no jobs, but even if there were, he would suggest mentioning neither my education, nor my veteran status, as any jobs for people like me were for local laborers who really deserved the work.

A lot of people had some bone to pick with us for some reason. For many, it’s never gone away.

I’ll never know what the problem was, but goddam their eyes.

Anyway, the draft-dodgers had all the jobs, it seemed, and my few humiliating experiences at trying to find employment gave me plenty of ammunition to explain to Sainted Mother why I just thought maybe I’d head on back to San Francisco. Besides, I had to go through the phase of learning to moderate my speech patterns, or some such shit, people said. I knew they didn’t mind intemperate speech that much in California.

As a Jack Nicholson character was to say in a move much later on, “I was just inches from a clean getaway.”

Sainted Mother, for all her lack of formal education, though, always had another ace up her sleeve.

She smiled that damned sweet little smile of hers. “You know your cousin Troy?”

Hell, did I know my cousin Troy? He took me to the airport when I was on my way to Vietnam. He half-raised me. We had spent all afternoon drinking beer the day before she asked me the question.

I just nodded.

“He knows a man who runs the urban renewal department for the city. He wants to take you to meet him tomorrow morning. You’ll do this one last little thing for me, won’t you?” She framed her face the way mothers do when they have just cut your legs off, in a metaphorical sense.

“Yes,” I said, “Yes I will, yes.”

My life was about to change in ways that I had never imagined.

How the hell was I supposed to know?

Friday, April 20, 2018

My Redacted Life: Chapter One (Concluded)

This brief segment ends the first chapter of my “life after military duty.” That duty had afforded me ample time to ponder my future. Unfortunately, I was still at a loss, despite all that pondering, and I’m hell on pondering, just ask my wife.

Back then, though, I felt the way a modern shopper does when looking at shelves stocked with (it seems) hundreds of kinds of toothpaste. They say that having too many choices inhibits decision-making. I don’t know. I have observed that football team captains don’t tend to marry early in life, unless they have to, and many of them do.

As for me, I had always reckoned on returning to San Francisco upon my separation, maybe signing up as a merchant seaman. Or, I had a drafting job supposedly waiting with Babcock and Wilcox, one I had filled while facing the military draft. They were supposed to hire you back when you left the service, but I found out later that there were lots of ways companies had to screw veterans over. That in itself, screwing veterans over, would prove to be a national obsession, but I didn't know it yet.

There were also these things I had heard about in the Navy called “computers.” They sounded too complicated for the folks in my old SF neighborhood, but who knew? Maybe there was opportunity there. Besides, San Francisco was about the goddamdest, gut-busingest, goldardnest, fun-chasingest place in America to live, as long as you had a  job and a good, heavy, summer coat. The thought of returning there was a strong pull, particularly for one who had just served a two-years sentence in that hellhole of hatred and incivility known as Charleston, South Carolina.

Returning to “The City” seemed a logical choice. I had, after all, left my heart there. Or was it Bangkok? I couldn’t remember, but I was in “California or Bust” mode. I could almost smell the Eucalyptus trees and feel the bite of the early morning fog, not coming on “little cats’ feet” but like thundering herds of bison bounding down Haight Street from the wide, old Pacific. I figured on lighting out before too long. The pull of the West was too strong.

I hadn’t, though, counted on my Sainted Mother. Stay tuned.

Pre-Military pondering ...
San Francisco Beach 1967 ...
Notice the pack of Camels.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

My Redacted Life: Chapter One (Cont. 7)

It was Day Two of my civilian life, November 13, 1970 if I remember right, and I was home. My mother and I had met on the steps of our country store and shared our greetings. We weren’t an overly demonstrative family, but she made it clear that she was glad to see me finished with military life.

As she put it in her eloquent and feminine way, “I was always so goddam afraid they would send you back over yonder.”

We went inside where my father sat on his stool behind the store’s counter. It was his throne, and none entered his domain without recognizing his rule. He nodded my way and said, “Make it home all right?”

That’s the German equivalent of a scream of joy.

You remember a lot of things about your father as you grow old. Strange things. I think back often to how it must have been growing up in the deep woods of Arkansas in a tortured home life that would end in a separation and bitter estrangement.

His father had been hired out as a youth to a farmer in the German colony of Golconda, Illinois. Part of the money he had earned went to the education of brother who became a highly respected PhD, at the University of Iowa, teaching and studying about rural sociology.

Granddaddy got to keep some of the money, and later narrowed the choices of how spend it to purchasing a small flour mill in St. Paul, Minnesota, or buying a sizable chunk of timberland in the wilds of Arkansas.

On such decisions ride the gods who dispense the vicissitudes of life, laughing all way.

Of all the stories Daddy told me, the one that stands out involved a band of gypsies who stopped at their isolated homeplace wanting to swap a jug of milk for a wagon bow. “For your babies,” they said.

“Got no babies,” my grandmother said, threatening them with a broom and chasing them away.

They left, according to my father’s telling of the story, walking and singing,

“Up the road,
Down the road.
Here we go.
Got no baby.
Got no wagon bow.”

Don’t know if it’s true or not, but it’s a hell of a good story. Anyway, that’s the man who met me. He didn’t ask much about my service career. He never wanted me to join, but realized I had no choice. Having been called “A dirty Hun,” as a child during World War One, he didn’t consider military service any of his business, or mine.

He was a hard-headed, but mischievous man. He suffered the bitter prejudices of his day, but never refused a genuine plea for help from anyone in need, no matter the color of their skin. He was never cruel and never cheated a customer. He forgave many a credit bill for a family headed for Detroit and a better life. They would often offer him their plot of family land in payment.

He always refused. “What would I do with it?” Anyway, a lot of families who owned land went broke during the Depression.

He was a product of his time and place. He thought Franklin D. Roosevelt deserved a place as an addition the Holy Trinity. A “Blue-Dog Democrat,” his whole life, I am afraid that he could never have accepted an African-American as president. I suspect he would have changed political parties because of it, as so many of our people have.

That day, though, we didn’t discuss such things. He was most interested in the route I had taken home and how much traffic I had encountered. He had simple interests in a brain that whirled like a Cray computer. An eight-grade dropout, he could work algebra problems in his head without knowing algebra. He could envision and build a house, barn, or conveyor-device to load firewood without benefit of paper or pen. He could add long columns of figures, even those written in his tortured writing, without a single mistake.

He read the newspaper each day and was fond of comic books. He liked most white people okay, and all “colored” people it seemed, as long as they kept their place. He wasn’t fond of preachers or loafers. He could grow anything and butcher an entire hog with less effort than it takes me to mow a lawn.

He always kept a cow and a calf in a barn behind the house. It gave him pleasure, and it also provided an opportunity to enjoy a shot of Old Yellowstone after a long day in the store. More than one, though, and he faced the wrath of the tiny terrorists to whom he was married. Our mother was much the source of his strength and whatever success he enjoyed. He was a lucky man in marriage, a bit of good fortune I was later to enjoy myself.

Oh, I wish he had enjoyed an education. He might have helped with a cure for cancer. I regret that he suffered from the prejudices of his generation, but I’m glad that it didn’t make him mean as it has so many others. I wish at times that he hadn’t been so set in his ways, but then I think of others who got rich doing the same thing he did for a living and couldn’t have done it without pushing the boundaries of decency.

Is short, they gave him to us as we found him and that’s all I can write about. We could have done worse.

That day, we sat and talked for a long time about traveling, about traffic, about crops, and about fishing. If the weather held out he said, “We might just give it a try on Sunday.” I said I would like that.

Pre-Fishing Days

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

My Redacted Life: Chapter One (Cont. 6)

 It had only been two days since I left the Navy, and now I was home, almost, that is. I left the urban area of my hometown and descended into the Bayou Bartholomew wetlands, crossing the bayou itself. In 1958, four feet of water had covered the road ahead, the entire area suffering a major flood.

Today, a large Walmart and attendant development sits in the floodplain, awaiting its turn.

That day, I could see home. It was a large country grocery store, on high ground at a slight curve in the highway. Our house was attached to it. You simply walked through a door at the back of the store into our kitchen.

I drove past the homes of childhood friends, O.D. Walker and Jim Fletcher. I saw what we had one thought was a mountain cliff designed for play and exploration. Now it looked to be just a slight erosion remnant, left by the bayou over thousands of years. Youth magnifies, and life, unfortunately for us all, diminishes.

Slowing, I pulled in beside the store. Cars came and went there all day long, so there wasn’t any reason why anyone would suspect an unusual visitor. But in that strange way that mothers know things, the door to the store opened and she walked out.

Mable Josephine Harris von Tungeln was slight woman, maybe five-foot three. She had been laid aside to die, premature and unfit, after she was born while the doctor treated her mother with, Vick’s Salve of course. He had a bit left over and saved Mabel as well, this from our family historian. Her father had died when she was three, and the only thing she remembered about him was the scene of her oldest brother’s climbing a post and ringing a bell that signified meals or an emergency.

Her mother had raised the two sisters still at home in the most abject poverty one can imagine. A playmate had pushed young Mabel down in the schoolyard when she was in grade school and her classmates had discovered that her “drawers” had been sewn by a hapless mother out of castoff curtains from a local church. She never could forget that, and I’ll always remember how she would break down whenever she heard Dolly Parton sing “My Coat of ManyColors.”

Somehow, she had survived to adulthood. There, if you looked at her you would see frail figure in a simple cotton dress and horn-rimmed glasses, seeming to be weak and helpless in the face of a cruel and challenging world.

Cross her, and you would excite hot bands of steel and find a tigress who didn’t fear a person in the world, even my father. She hated nobody that I remember, but had no use for drunkards (anyone who might or had taken one drink in their lives), fast-talking salesmen, and “religious fanatics.” She liked Elvis and would sneak fifty-cents from the cash register each time a new single came out. She knew professional wrestling was fake, but thought I Love Lucy was real.

We had had two talks in our life about intimacy between people. The first was after a neighborhood 18-year-old had been discovered having an affair with a 52-year-old woman. He had then feigned a suicide attempt to garner sympathy. Mother’s explanation: “I’ve always heard that an old woman can just drive a young man crazy.”

The second was when I had tried to explain how I was in love, I imagined, with someone long forgotten. “Let me tell you something,” she had explained “When I married your daddy, I wasn’t in love, as you say, with him at all. I married him because I knew the von Tungeln men worked, and if I married him, I never would have to go hungry again. Then, after we had sharecropped, butchered hogs to get money to buy this store, and then ran it together, I woke up one morning and realized I worshiped the ground he walked on, and still do. That is what love means for poor people.”

And that’s the woman who now stood on the porch of our family store with her hands on her hips, looking at me.

Don't let that innocent
smile fool you.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

My Redacted Life: Chapter One (Cont. 5)

It was only the second day of my civilian life but it felt like a year had passed. In a few moments, I would be home. Home. Robert Frost once said, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." I knew my return wouldn’t be that cynical. It was the only place on earth where they wanted to take me in, at least from love.
Fight our country's
 enemies, and this
is your thanks.
I've mentioned that the Navy had offered to take me back in and give me home if I only promised to serve on river boats in Vietnam. See, to the right,  how the country allowed people to treat men who did that. I’m glad I passed on a grand patriotic adventure such as that.

Back to Day Two, I drove by fields, recently harvested, where men still made good livings tilling the soil. Large, but not grand homes, appeared where plantation mansions had stood years before. The farms gave way to scattered housing, then subdivisions, and then commercial enterprises. I seem to remember that a massive outdoor movie screen still stood on the outskirts of town. Roberts Brothers Tire Store came into view, then an all-night service station where we had delivered milk when I was an eleven-year-old.

Herbie’s Barbecue, where they used to bring beer to your car, was still there. I learned later that the bathroom was still as filthy it as it had been when I left. They say Herbie left it that way to discourage people from spending too much time within. A story, not verified, by me at least, held that a young man had left his empty beer can on the long, once white, urinal, his last beer before leaving for Vietnam, only to find it still in the same spot on his return. I don’t know. You hear a lot of things in your home town.

My crowd’s main teenage hangout, “The Wagon Wheel” had closed years ago. I drove on.

I reached Main Street and saw our town’s landmark: a billboard with a little girl on a swing that actually moved, “Little Miss Sunbeam.” I don’t remember how long it had been there, at the end of Main. I just couldn’t remember when it wasn’t. She was still swinging that day, and smiling right at me. Appropriate.

All the sights were familiar now. My heart was warm. I was no longer a stranger in a strange land. In a few moments I would be home. I drove down a divided and landscaped street with grand homes on either side. Then I made the final turn toward where my future waited.

I had no way of knowing at the time, but at a college 60 miles away, a beautiful young girl of 20 was finishing classes for the day and was sashaying across campus on the way to meet her boyfriend at the Student Union. Her flowing red hair and grandly formed legs no doubt drew a great deal of attention that day. Jimmie Buffett would later describe her type as “A smart woman in a real short skirt.”

Paths cross in this world. They choose strange routes and take their time. Sometimes, they carry anchors with them. I sometimes wonder if the gods don’t stand at the intersections and laugh.

Tomorrow: meeting Mother.

In my hometown, you know you have
arrived when she smiles your way.