Sunday, September 21, 2003

Border Patrol

The stories were gory. They told of many a soldier who met his maker while patrolling the Czech border with West Germany. The same border I found myself guarding for a month at a time, every three months, back in '85.
Today's children grow up unaware of the Cold war, but back then it was something that affected everybody in the western hemisphere.
We spent our border tours gated in a few miles away from the line. We rotated on weekly "Reaction Force" shifts. Reaction Force members had to be on alert 24 hours a day. From the moment the camp alarm went off we had 15 minutes to be fully dressed in field gear with chemical suits on; our weapons clean, loaded and operational, and our tanks rolling out the main gate. We had so little time to do this that we could never afford to be out of our chemical suits. We kept our boots on at all times. Hell, we weren't even supposed to shower!
We would spend all our time studying classified border terminology, proper international procedures, friendly and enemy vehicle (air, land and sea) identification, and, an Army favorite pastime, cleaning.
Those who weren't on Reaction Force spent their time doing regular training exercises and preventive maintenance on their vehicles. Others rotated on guard duty at the line.
Now, being that we're talking about the Iron curtain, you would expect the border line to be fenced off, or walled like in Berlin. But there was nothing like that. There were markers placed every few hundred feet, indicating when you were walking into enemy territory. These were easily missed in the thick of the Bavarian forest.
When going on guard duty, we would rotate around on four hour shifts. Dressed to the gills and armed to the teeth, wearing white snow camouflage over our parkas, a jeep would drop us off a hundred feet or so from the border. We had no radios to keep in touch. Nothing but the late night forest sounds to keep us company.
Every now and then you would see a tiny flickering flame, when the guard on the opposing side of the line would light up a smoke. I would always hide behind a tree before lighting up one of my own.
The bone chilling coldness would never dissipate. I walked around in circles, even did jumping jacks occasionally, but nothing could keep the shivers from climbing up your spine.
Your senses become overly acute there. When it's late at night and you're in a potentially volatile situation, with a handgun and a semi-automatic rifle both cocked and loaded, you hear many things seemingly creeping up on you. The shadows in the darkness take different shapes and the whispers of the forrest sound like human voices.
We'd all heard the tale of the three man crew in a jeep who'd fallen asleep on their post, only to be found with their throats slit the next morning by a search and rescue party. Those events were always kept under wraps for fear of starting an international conflict, as well as to deter an inevitable embarrassment in the diplomatic arena.
It's been years since then and I still hang on to my border certificates with pride. When the Berlin wall fell and the Cold War ended, the U.S. government sent me yet another certificate, testifying to my contribution toward fighting and winning the Cold War. These certificates along with the other awards I received, are a deep source of honor for me. And I draw on them and cling firmly to them each time a surge of patriotism takes over me. But I hesitate to admit we won much.
There will always be an enemy. If there is none, one must be created. Humans simply cannot live in peace with one another. Petty jealousies and blind ambition will always ensure that somebody somewhere will try to get a bigger piece of the pie.
Third world countries will always seek to blame another for their misfortunes. Religious fanatics everywhere will always believe they're right, even though they're passing judgment based on faith rather than reason.
I can't imagine living in peace. It's hard to attain peace in a single household, much less in a planet. Still, I yearn for a world in which we no longer step on each other to make our way. Perhaps someday.

Saturday, September 20, 2003

My puppy

I first met her when she was about four months old. The son of a friend of mine had received her as a gift from a neighbor, but his mother didn't want to keep her. I was living as a bachelor in L.A. then, and she was just what I was looking for to keep me company. I offered to take her.
She was a chihuahua mix. Small, dark, and cute as hell. With barely any of the shaky nervousness that make chihuahuas so aggravating. She would jump up on my chest when I walked in from work (or when I returned from stepping out a minute, for that matter) and from day one she would snuggle up to me in bed.
I would toss her inside my jacket and we would go for long rides on my hog. I called her Broad. When asked why, I would tell people that I always wanted to have a female in my life that wouldn't mind being called a broad. When friends would call me over to watch a game or have a beer, I would say "I'm bringing the Broad," and more than once guys would be pleasantly surprised to find the broad was my dog.
When I worked security, Broad would walk my route with me at night and jump up in my arms when she heard a scary noise.
We went through a lot together. When I left Los Angeles I had only my bike, my guitar and Broad. She was always with me. The one constant thing in my ever changing life.
My wife was more of a cat person when we first met ( I hate cats!). She had an old cat that was on its last legs, staying with her mother at the time. Her name was Precious. She died shortly after we started seeing each other. Her Dad built a small casket for her and I buried her up in the hills behind my house. Cindy would walk up there often to visit her grave.
Broad had been staying with some friends of mine while I got settled in after a nasty breakup. When Cindy started spending most of her time at my house, I decided it was time to bring Broad back.
Broad took to her instantly. In fact, she abandoned me for her. Cindy in turn found Broad a lot more receptive to her tenderness than cats had ever been, and so lavished her with love. She took to treating Broad like a baby. Providing her with blankets and pillows, placed just right to maximize her comfort. Broad ate it up. We even got her a faux leather jacket, a sweater, and other accessories that made her look pretty damn cute. She became a staple in Cindy's appearance. Everywhere she went, out would come Broad. People expected to see them together.
Whenever we traveled anywhere, our biggest concern was always Broad and who would look after her. It was very hard to trust anybody. To most people she was only a dog, but to us she was like a child. We always tried to find somebody who would think of her as such.
When Cindy got pregnant I became a little concerned. Broad had never liked children. They would always be grabbing at her, and as fragile as she was, her only defensive mechanism was to growl at them as they approached her. She never wanted to hurt anybody. She just wanted to be left alone. I knew that having a baby in the house would be her darkest nightmare come true. She wouldn't get a moment's peace.
The other thing that worried me was that Broad was used to getting all our attention, particularly Cindy's. There was a high degree of probability that she would react jealously to an intrusion by somebody else.
But once Christina was born, all my worries disappeared. Broad let all her maternal instincts kick in and decided it was her baby too. She became protective of her, and guarded her sleeping area. She didn't even mind when Christina played with her ears or pulled her tail. She seemed to understand that it came with the territory.
It happened shortly after she turned eleven, that one morning for no apparent reason, Broad appeared to be totally blind. My wife had noticed there was something wrong with her, but it wasn't until I came home from work that evening and saw her wandering aimlessly in a circle outside, that I realized she'd lost her sight. I stepped outside and called her name, and guided by my voice, she made her way to me. She seemed relieved when I picked her up, like everything was going to be alright. But that night we all realized just how bad this was.
She was in the habit of climbing in and out of our bed all night; going for a drink or laying on the cold tile. That night she fell off the bed several times, and twice got stuck in between the mattress and the footboard. She couldn't find her water or food. It was heartbreaking.
On the following day my wife called me in tears at work. She couldn't bear to see how much Broad was struggling. She was bumping into everything and, since the pool is right outside the door, we were afraid she was going to fall in when we let her out into the yard. I called the vet and they allowed us to bring her in that same morning. I met my wife there.
The doctor confirmed our worst fears: she was completely and seemingly permanently blind, and there was nothing that could be done about it.
We were all crying like fools in the doctor's office. I knew what had to be done. I couldn't bear to think of seeing my dog like this any longer, but worse, I didn't want to imagine coming home some day to find her dead, caught between the bedframe and the mattress, or drowned in the pool. The thought of it was too devastating for words. We simply couldn't provide her with the type of intensive care she would now require. Convincing my wife of this was another matter.
We spent about thirty minutes in there discussing it. Finally, we decided to put her to sleep. They said their goodbyes and I stayed behind to hold her during the ordeal.
It went a lot slower and took a lot longer than I anticipated. The whole time I was crying like a baby and talking to her so she knew I was there, holding her. I couldn't help but imagining what was going through her head, wondering why I was letting this happen to her.
I know in my heart that we did the right thing, the only thing we could do. But I miss her so much that it hurts. Next month will be the first anniversary of her death, and the heartache has yet to dissipate. Perhaps it never will.
Whenever we drive past the vets office, my daughter will point at it and say, "There's Broad's doctor." Then she'll invariably add: "I miss Broad."
"I miss her too," I say, "I miss her too."

Monday, September 15, 2003

And then I was there; free to pursue a musical career in the midst I had anticipated for so long. The weight of my self imposed expectations weighed heavily on me. It's easy to plan for something while it's still far away. Once you find yourself there, the pressure to provide results takes away from the envisioned scenario.
Regardless of the stories I'd heard and common sense itself, I halfway expected Los Angeles to be a bohemian breeding ground, or at the very least, a gathering place for artists. I could not have been more wrong.
The air in L.A. is laden with bullshit and trendy eastern philosophies thinly disguised behind the masks of so-called New Age thought. The people are clay, eager to follow the next health-happy idea. It's a world ruled by the intrepid and the daring, but certainly not by the wise.
But my hope rested in the music scene, not in the city itself. I pictured talented, music loving kids joining in a blend of cultural folklore; striving to discover the sublime sounds that might bring the world together as one. Lofty and naive goals, to be sure, but I thought highly of the accomplishments that could be realized through art then.
What I found was a place packed tight with talent, overflowing almost, but with only one general purpose in common. Money. The scene on the streets was oriented toward money. It was all business, not art. The up and coming bands didn't hope to record the next Sgt. Pepper, they hoped to sell like Milli Vannilli.
The lack of integrity in people's craft puzzled and disillusioned me. Songwriting was approached in a cold and distant fashion. People wanted to come up with jingles, or riffs. Something catchy and short. There was no attempt to conceive something that might be inherently beautiful, and passed on to future generations. Everybody just wanted to make a buck.
Sadly, the most gifted people are usually the most shallow as well. I may have had a higher purpose than others in mind, but my skills were limited. My tolerance for networking and self-promotion was even more so. There was no future for me there. I had to get out.
In leaving, I left behind a world of dreams.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

The storm whistled through the night.
We were warmly tucked into our beds, with our teeth brushed and our bellies tight. The flickering light from the corner lamppost slivered past the opening in our drapes and cut across our legs, safely hidden beneath the covers.
As a child there were no sounds from the television at night. The only television in the house was upstairs in the family room and it was turned off when we got sent to bed at 9 o'clock each night. Every sound was tremendously amplified by the sheer silence we were accustomed to. Late at night my brother's heavy breathing would be a source of comfort to me, as I would discover years later when I no longer had it, but in the early evening hours after our lights went out and my eyes turned to the darkness around me, my imagination surged.
As the rainfall intensified, the rain and wind combined to create a smattering action against our windows. It sounded like a perpetual throwing of pebbles, as one might do to call one room's attention without waking up the entire household.
I imagined somebody out there calling to me. A dark figure in the rain, wearing a hat and a dark, long overcoat; his face hidden behind the darkness and the storm, but I figured him to be somehow deformed and hideous.
As the night progressed, other noises would join in. The dripping sound from leaks in our ceiling: drip, drip, drip...hitting the tile in the dining area. The roofing never properly held out the water. The moisture had gotten so bad that we had big yellow stains along the walls in the living room. I had a series of mushrooms growing down from the ceiling right above me. During the day I would sometimes put a chair on my bed, climb up there with my pocketknife and cut them down. But they wiggled, and moved around eerily. It felt like I was killing a frog or something. So I would usually just let them hang, then suffer through the night trying to look at them in the darkness, wanting desperately to avoid seeing them.
The winds blew stronger, and the rustling of the leaves outside became louder than the rain. All these sounds created a wild succession of images in my head. There seemed to be scores of people outside, charging through the yard and beyond, in the streets. They were up to no good. There is always a sense of evil in the things that you cannot see.
I remember waking up the next morning, unsure of what had happened. It always took a few moments to shake off the nightmares and confront them as such; to come back to reality - differentiate between the actual and the imaginary. Then the day would take on a different tone.

Thursday, September 04, 2003

There's a creek that runs alongside the mountain, adjacent to the southernmost fields of my family's farm. You might call it a brook, it's so small, if you were to address it properly. But since I was a kid the locals refered to it as a creek.
It drapes down from west to east; altitude declining unperceived as it falls. The water cascading ever so gently; you can barely see it break against the polished rocks on its downward journey.
It is a sunken stream; buried below ground level by centuries of motion. You walk down into it if you wish to view it.
The tangled rows of dividivis shelter it from above; a thorny ceiling of wild, overgrown and twisted wooden flesh; they weepingly hang over the sides. Sprouts from an old leather dye plantation gone wild; allowed to extend past the parameters of their intended home to takeover the mountain and valley below it.
The creek is walled on both sides by stone fences. Each stone painstakingly placed over the other. Their purpose initially to divide and define property lines, now they're simply reminders of the way things used to be done in the old days.
It is so narrow you can actually jump from one end to the other, if you don't mind getting your feet wet. Some sections have enough stepping stones exposed that you can safely make your way through. Yet other areas have a short log propped up across it to walk over. A poor man's bridge, you might say.
At night you can't see it, hidden behind its leaf clothing. But you can hear it. And when the stars are out in that clear wide sky it's the soundtrack of life itself. I haven't known that peace in a long time.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Whew!
Sometimes you start building up momentum and get wound up so tight...that any good news gives you relief!
Today I'm breathing a huge sigh of relief for some health problems in a loved one that have all but seemed to vanish. We'll find out for sure a week from Thursday.
I'm still holding my breath for a million other things. Some problems that I can't even imagine ever getting resolved. But the truth is, most things usually seem quite futile to me and still they have a way of working themselves out.
Besides, you have to put your problems in perspective. From the world's point of view, just how important is your selfishly small and silly personal problem in the whole scheme of things. We must balance our convictions apriopriately, scale back our dillemas to their proper size, and try to view matters from an objective angle. Not observe it from below, as we're being crushed by the weight of its menacing possiblities. This removes our ability to judge with impartiality. It's like my wife always says: "You should never go shopping for groceries on an empty stomach." It's true. Everything looks good and seems necessary. Our hunger is telling us so. The truth though, is that we're giving our stomach an unfair advantage over our brain when trying to make wise choices according to our actual needs and budget.
Anyway, it all comes down to the obvious and overstated, but painfully true: At least you've got your health. Hell, when it comes down to it that's all that really counts.

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

The dusty trail behind the last row of houses on the south side of T-town, wound narrowly past the arid desert land. Swerving round past the tumbleweeds and leafless skeleton trees; the bushes of thorny green weeds that somehow manage to grow in the Kern ridge oilfields. Nothing much else does, besides the rabbits and kit foxes.
Rocks abound, at every glance filling your view. Covered in moss and bird shit.
The path began as if out of nowhere. Behind the houses where everybody parked their broken down vehicles: boats, RVs, cars, etc. Open wasteland lay ahead, spotted with the occasional pumping unit. The trail inclines steadily yet almost unnoticeably, as you forge your way up the hill.
Not very far, maybe just three or four hundred feet out there, you come upon a fenced in area. About an acre in size, dirty and abandoned, you can see row after row of tombstones in that old forgotten cemetery. They are uniformly built...lamentably ordinary and plain. Some have fallen over or tilted off to the side. Others have been nearly covered by dust storms.
If you climb over the fence, you can still read the names of the buried. The vaguest details of their existence remain firmly etched in stone. It's here that the most disturbing patterns emerge. All the graves were dug within 3 years of each other. Between 1922 and 1925. And they were all children. Hundreds of them. One, two, three, five or eight years old...just children. Names from every heritage: Irish, French, Chinese, Spanish, and many others.
It takes a visit to the local oilfield museum where you can view the back issues of the Midway Driller newspaper to find any kind of information linking the cemetery to reality. Most of the locals simply refuse to acknowledge its existence. But the place is real, and so was the influenza epidemic that caused all those deaths, along with the unimaginable sorrow such emptiness leaves behind to those poor forsaken families.
The old papers speak of oriental royalty. A young princess, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, a jewel among her people. But in the old cemetery hers is just another abandoned grave.
There was a time when I believed that the mark of a true hero was when in the face of certain death, he still chooses to do the right thing. This was illustrated in an event very close to me a few years ago. One of the outbound airplanes of a cargo airline I was working for at the time, had a sudden shift in its weight and balance upon takeoff - the locks which hold the large metal pallets where the cargo is secured came undone, allowing the carefully distributed weight to run helter skelter across three empty pallet positions - and lost its lift, crashing down less than half a mile away from the landing strip.
The crash took place in a highly trafficked area, where there were not only congested streets packed with lunch hour drivers, but also warehouses, restaurants and other assorted small businesses. The potential for a tragedy of biblical proportions was quite real. Instead, the pilot and his crew used their final seconds on this earth to steer the plane clear from the crowds and into the only clear spot which was available - an empty field which ended at the lateral side of a major avenue - limiting the casualties to the crew, a security guard who was traveling along, and an unfortunate driver who was caught by the nose of the plane.
The ball of fire was unbelievable. Eighty percent of the cargo on board was denim headed to the Caribbean, and it burned like crazy. But only five people died in what could have been so much worse.
I always thought of what was going through the pilot's head in those last few seconds. When your knowledge of the laws of physics show you that there's simply no way out alive, do you still hope beyond hope? When he maneuvered in such a way as to miss as much as possible did he still somehow hope to survive? Otherwise, why opt for the most humane approach instead of cursing the world for your bad fortune and going out in a blaze of glory. What guides a person to make that decision at such short notice?
I don't know. Its not something you can tell about yourself until you find you're in a similar situation.

That is indeed true heroism. As are the actions of firemen who jump into danger daily, disregarding their own safety for the benefit of strangers.
But those heroics do not diminish the importance and value of the strength shown to a smaller scale daily, by spouses forced to deal with having to put up a strong front before their sick or dying loved ones. Not to overlook the valor of the sick people themselves, which has its own undeniable and incalculable merit. But having to show a rock hard facade when inside you're crumbling, only so your loved one has something to hold onto, is an admirable and lonely quality. It leaves you with only the wall as a sympathetic listener, and only emptiness and despair to look forward to when your loved one finally moves on.