When Nature Claims Her Own

Gaea, the goddess of all the earth, is trying to kill me. I don’t know what I did. I’m on her side, for crying out loud. I’ve always known the Trees are going to win. I’m on their side. But the planet’s got it in for me. This time, it’s personal.

The first time Mother Nature tried to kill me I was just eight years old. It was springtime in Cherokee County, Kansas, and a million trees were blooming upwind of Riverton Elementary school, where I was finishing out a rare unbroken school year waiting for my father to fly home from Vietnam and transfer his squad of children to our permanent duty station. My third-grade class was frolicking at recess, that totally unstructured half hour when elementary schoolmarms let their charges blow off steam.

It was still jacket weather, despite the greens bursting through the earth and along tender branches all across the Ozark foothills. The air burned in my lungs. No. That wasn’t right. The air abandoned my lungs. My chest was tight. I clutched at my ribs and struggled to wheeze air into them.

Terrified, I gasped for air.

“I can’t breathe,” I gasped to my teacher.
“Well, go inside and lay your head on your desk.”

I did so. Maybe going inside got me out of the pollen. Nothing ever came of that incident.

Weeks later it happened again.

I was at my grandparents’ house after school.  Picking through pieces of childhood memory, assembling the jigsaw trauma half a century later, the picture emerges of my 14-year-old aunt babysitting my sisters and me when Nature shoved a pillow over my face. It was the during halcyon days of black and white portrayal of Saturday Night Post, of Better Homes and Garden, before middle-class white women took jobs outside their home. It would be years before my mother entered the workforce. She and my grandmother were in town with the toddlers, ‘town’ being Joplin or Baxter.

With Dad stationed in Saigon, we stayed in a brick rancher my grandfather had built on a slice of land catty corner from his own home. We’d cut through Grampa’s pasture to get between the houses for Sunday supper or entice Grandma to dote on us.

That year glitters in my memory as the happiest of my life. For one precious solar circuit I experienced my own cliched small town childhood in the bosom of an extended family. It was a glimpse of the lifestyle my father’s service protected, the lifestyle of civilian children in public school hallways whose lives I slipped in and out of as the Pentagon shifter tin soldiers around the board. It seemed idyllic to me.

Riverton is a speck on a map astride Route 66, which cuts a short arc through Kansas from Missouri like Quantrill’s partisans on the way to Oklahoma. Riverton is an unincorporated town, cluttered around Empire District’s hydroelectric plant where Grampa worked, the World Famous Spring River Inn, and a Dairy Creme ice cream stand. Our house was across from the First Baptist Church we attended and Pastor Jones invited me to supper with his family and his son, a year my senior, was a playmate.

It was small town by any definition, but it was hardly rural. Not farmland. I thought I lived on Green Acres because my grandfather had a garden where he grew their vegetables, and a corrugated metal barn in a pasture where a red cow named Sally grazed with her calves before offering them up to our deep freeze and table. The milkman delivered bottles to our doorstep and sometimes I rode to with Grandma to buy fresh eggs from a Columbus farmhouse and her vintage sedan left a dusty contrail in our wake along the long and gravel road.

That Kansas dust was part of the problem. So were the pasture grasses, and the crepe myrtles, and pet dander, and the household dust mites lingering in carpets and drapery, and a couple dozen other allergens whose ubiquity tortured me, but we didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was I couldn’t breathe. It was as if Sally had lain on my chest. I felt like Giles Corey at Salem.

Giles called for more weight but I clutched my chest and whined piteously: “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”

Aunt Marie was at her wits’ end. This was long before cell phones, before pagers, even before answering machines. We had a telephone but no way to reach my mother, no way to reach my grandmother. At fourteen Marie kept an eye on me and my sisters before. This was a million years ago, remember, before the world went bad.

Every time I tell this story Marie reminds me she was frantic, so I’ve folded that detail into my labile memory, though the detail is probably more annotation than memory. My memories of that day are shrouded in fog. I wasn’t getting enough oxygen to my brain.

After what seemed an eternity Mom and Grandma returned. They rushed me to the emergency room in Joplin. The doctors diagnosed an asthma attack and put me in an oxygen tent for a week to recuperate.

Once we got settled at Fort Monroe, my father drove me to Walter Reed in Washington where Army medics scratched a bunch of poison into my back to discover my sensitivities. Turns out I have no right to be alive.

I read an article once, a habit picked up from my mother, whose propensity to clip stories

tangent to her children’s interests we hold in fond amusement. Even today, when print journalism has become so anemic I worry for my future hobo bedding, I open envelopes from home and find the confetti of her concern and encouragement stuffed inside. My file cabinet bulges with yellowed newsprint my daughter will one day toss in a dumpster unglimpsed. I read a newspaper article when the word ‘asthma’ caught my eye.  The writer suggested a psychological component to asthma, a child’s reaction to the helplessness of circumstances swallowing him, and I remembered that spring when the most idyllic year I had ever or would ever experience collapsed at the tail end of a school year, ripping me from extended family, from my friends and classmates, even from the concept Home like the cyclone sweeping Dorothy Gale into the flying monkey horrors.
Such a mind/body correlation goes almost without saying, even when there are other factors, like a plethora of allergies that modified my parents’ lifestyle. My mother cleared our home of carpets and drapes. My father made a point to smoke outside. My father considered cigarettes one of his few pleasures in life, so smoking on the porch may be the most loving gesture he ever made to me.

Smoking outside beat rushing me to the dispensary for a shot of adrenaline to counter asthma attacks. Even with all their precautions they made frantic drives to the hospital several times every spring until I was well into my teens. My body regularly tried to kill me.

After the diagnoses from Walter Reed we squeezed a regimen of biweekly allergy shots, every week, for years. It was a burden on the family but would have been impossible without the Army’s health care benefits. That level of medical care was a privilege I could not comprehend when I was a boy. I understand it is not most people’s norm. “It’s ironic,” my uncle observed, “that the most socialist organization in America is the one charged with fighting world socialism.”

And it makes me wonder.

After some years passed the biweekly shots tapered to weekly and eventually … ended altogether. I seemed to have outgrown my asthma for the most part, though in some seasons and locales the tight chest flared again. I sometimes treated it with an over-the-counter spray. They don’t make that spay anymore. Too many fluorocarbons. I learned other tricks to deal with infrequent attacks. Local honey is a natural treatment for pollen allergies. A scalding shower makes a sauna of a bathroom, melting loose mucus stalactites . Strong coffee opens my bronchial passages.

Most of the time I don’t need to remember those things.

Late last week a cannonade of thunder rolled in from northwest, sheeting rain across the Missouri and splashing the city from downtown to uptown thence midtown, washing over me. A red cow crawled in my bed and plopped her wet, musky bulk squarely on my chest. I woke with a start, gasping for air. All the pollen of the upper Midwest coagulated my quarters.

I struggled into the kitchen to brew strong coffee. Gasping. Wondering if my suffocating circumstances accounted for the attack, missing the socialized medicine of my youth. As a starry-eyed youth I expected the US to have caught up with the rest of the Modern World in health care.

Gaea’s trying to kill me and I don’t know what I did.

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A Crow With a Machine Gun

What’s black, sits in a tree, and is very dangerous?
–children’s riddle

It was sometime near the Solstice because that’s when quirky magical things occur, even if the rest of you are too beguiled by the agents of empiricism to perceive them. I was convening with my ally, my accomplice, my partner-in-crime, Kali incarnate warrior princess, fiercely beautiful, beautifully fierce two-spirit poet Machine Gun Sally. MG, really. MG Salazar.

“What’s the MG stand for?”

“Machine Gun,” with a wink and a nod.

We met in Other World, in that place without time, then recognized each other when I moved above The Skullery Maid on Troost. TSM is a vintage clothing, curiosities, and oddities shop. As an editor for the Desolate Country poetry anthology MG recognized my essence in my submission “Guernica.” We saw each other when our landlord introduced us over the wary Gazpacho, fierce warrior pooch who’s a sweetie once you know him. Unless you wear a hat. Shortly after meeting we bonded while rescuing the baby birds that kept dropping in our yard and parking lot–back when we still had a parking lot–a tale recounted in “The Brief Life and Tragic Death of Starling Witt.”

We saw each other every day last summer. All I had to do was walk downstairs. I was useful for whiling away long stretches between customers. MG was useful for human interaction.

MG moved The Skullery Maid to Walnut Street, near the Art Institute, so now I make a special trip instead of wandering downstairs on a whim. I miss our proximity. I try to drop in the store a couple times a week.

This was one of those times.

“I’ve got a story I’ve been dying to tell you!” I said. “No one else could appreciate it.”

“Oh, this I’ve gotta hear.”

“You remember I go to that poetry thing every other Friday night–”

“Midnight Poetry?”

“Used to be. They moved it up. No one’s 20 anymore.”

“Right.”

“Now they call it ‘Not Quite Midnight Poetry.'”

“That’s hilarious.”

“I know. Anyway, I read from Finding Zen in Cow Town–”

“That Kansas City anthology?”

“Yeah.”

“You were in that?”

“No!” I hammed my exasperation. “Ryborg even asked me if I had any KC poems, but I didn’t at the time.”

“I didn’t even know it was coming out until it was at the printer,” MG scowled.

“I’ve started a couple since then. One that starts with John Calvin McCoy carving Broadway down to the Les Freres Chouteux to save two days off his trip to Independence. I may have bit off more than I can chew. But I do have “The ATM at Brookside” in Rogue’s Galley–”

“You read a poem?” Focus, Mark.

“I read Bill Peck’s piece.” We both knew Bill. He was one of the first Kansas City poets I met. William Peck had been a stalwart of gritty KC poetry for most of a score of years. For a while he had hosted Midnight Poetry in his penthouse loft overlooking Broadway at 36th, across from what is now  apartments but in the heyday of the Pendergast machine running wide open was the upscale Ambassador Hotel.

Bill had run Metaphor Media out of the space where MG ran TSM on Troost. He had lived in the apartment upstairs.

“So, I got up to read, and before I began the host asks, ‘Who’s the poet?’ And I said, ‘You’ll know when you hear it.’

“And I began reading ‘Kansas City Nights’ which is quintessentially Bill, saturated in deep draughts of Tom Waits. Allen immediately nodded, saying ‘Bill Peck’ … and it was funny, and all. But I got to the part about him going home to face himself alone in the mirror, walls peeling paint, the fucked-up ceiling …”

… with that hand rolling ‘go ahead’ gesture …

“And I realized … that same hole’s still in the ceiling.”

“That’s fucked up.”

“Yeah.”

“That’s hilarious.”

“I know.”

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The Brief Life and Tragic Death of Starling Witt

Monique found a fledgling Sunday, hopping at the bottom of the basement stairs behind her shop.

Monique is the poet, artist, Standing Rock veteran, and all-around bad-ass Latinx dynamo behind The Skullery Maid, a vintage furniture and clothing shop on Troost Avenue south of Rockhurst. My new apartment sits above her store, one of two nestled in the second story of a line of century-old brick storefronts. It’s part of the charm.

“What do you know about birds?” she asked as I returned from Mass by way of the grocers with sacks of essentials in my fists.

She recounted how she and Gazpacho—her rambunctious shepherd-lab mix—arrived earlier, as usual, opening the front door then letting ‘Pacho out the back so he could take care of his business as she puttered inside the store.

It was not long before Pacho’s incessant barking drew her out of the store. Now, Pacho is no Rin Tin Tin. If he were a human child some school psychologist would have long since prescribed Ritalin. But he normally quiets the barking when Monique scolds him. Two or three times.

This morning no scolding was stern enough to quell his bark. Exasperated Monique stepped out back. Pacho stood over the basement alcove, looking down, mounting a valiant final defense. Monique looked among the few dead leaves and discarded tarp littering the concrete landing in front of the basement doors for the source of the dog’s agitation. And there, at the very bottom of the stairs, stood a petrified ball of gray fluff, beak skyward.

It stood like a statue. It was so still she thought it must be surely dead.

It peeped.

Monique descended the steep concrete steps to scoop up a very-much-alive fledgling bird. She brought it up the steps and turned six-years-old, with the baby bird we all rescue when they fall from their nests somewhere civilization has made inhospitable. She fetched an empty box from the store and brought it out back for the bird. She put it on the ground. She put a bit of water in the bottom of a pot for him, too. Maybe she could raise it until it was big enough to fly on its own. People do it all the time. Just look at Buzzfeed.

When I got there I wondered why she hadn’t put a handful of grass in the box. I was nine.

Her description of finding the bird sounded familiar.

Much earlier that morning, Leon and I had taken our walk around the neighborhood. It had been a delightful stroll, with Leon satisfying his curiosity about what other critters—wild or domestic, human or otherwise—had passed that way since our last circuit, and me marveling at the birdsong ringing from the verdant dome spreading over the quiet street one block over.

When we returned home Leon plunged headlong beneath the other tenants’ van, tail wagging like a whirligig. He couldn’t squeeze his rear haunches under, but not for lack of trying.

“What are you doing?” I asked. “There’s nothing under there for a puppy.” He was not dissuaded. I looked to see the object of his obsession. There was something under there to interest a puppy. Silhouetted beneath the undercarriage was a tiny chick, beak pointed upward. It was immobile. I thought it was dead.

“Leave it alone, Leon. Let’s go inside.” He followed, pouting.

I realized the foundling Monique showed me must have been the same bird. He was older than a chick, with immature feathers rather than down, and a garish yellow beak like an Emmet Kelly mouth. When he flapped his wings they seemed just flimsy membranes jutting out of his spine.

Fledglings always look like ‘raptors to me. Velociraptors, not birds of prey. We were pretty sure this one was a starling, which is far from my favorite bird. But this one was a cute little fella and I was willing to do what I could to help.

Doing a quick web search for advice on raising baby birds—there are, after all, a million YouTube videos—persuaded me our best course was facilitating a family reunion. The sources told me parents will be looking for a lost fledgling, that they can hear one crying for food within a two block radius and respond. “They say to put it on a branch and leave the area, that the parents will find it.” Monique seemed disappointed. I admit it would have been more fun to raise him to full starlingdom and have him bouncing around behind us in the yard.

“I’m gonna call him Starling Witt,” I told her. (There is a local artist/musician named Sterling Witt who pops up in the Venn diagram of people Monique and I know.)

“Oh my god, that’s hilarious.”

The Middle: Lost & Found Again

I went to an open mic Sunday night. The Skullery Maid closes at 8. When I got home I had a message from Monique. She had placed Starling on a branch a couple times, but he kept falling off.

I went downstairs and walked around the back hard, neither finding nor hearing him.

I sighed. It had been a long shot. Nature works the way nature works and most of the young of most species die before maturity and that’s why so many are born. Because nature weeds us out. Still, it was disappointing.

Monday Starling made a reappearance. Monique spotted him at the bottom of the stairs. I retrieved him and put him on a low branch. He toppled onto the ground and waddled toward a patch of ivy. It’s hilarious watching flightless birds navigate a suburban back yard. Starling wasn’t laughing.

Once he was alone in the yard a cautious adult starling flapped to a landing with food in its beak. Maybe he would make it after all.

Monday evening he was missing again. Hiding from the humans, probably. Even hippies and Water Protectors are alienated from Nature, despite our best efforts.

Tuesday morning Starling was waddling around the fire pit. One last time I lifted him to a low-hanging branch. He clung tight to it with his little talons. He held on well over an hour. I went back upstairs, to give his folks a chance to take him home, sporadically looking out the back door to monitor his progress. The last I saw he was still clinging to the branch.

That afternoon I asked Monique if she had seen him. “No.”

“Maybe he managed to fly away?”

It was Pacho who discovered Starling’s lifeless body on the grass, insects swarming over it. We exhaled our final sigh of disappointment.

“Should we bury him?” Monique asked. “We named him, we should probably bury him.”

“We could build a pyre.”

“You think?”

That’s what we did: piled dead twigs and branches in the circle of stone that makes a backyard fire pit, placed Starling’s body atop it, and set it aflame. The twigs caught and the fire burned and the last earthly remains of young Starling Witt returned to the cosmos.

Monique started to sing. It was a beautiful rhythmic melody. The words were First Peoples’.

The words’ vibrations permeated our tiny circle.

“Where did you learn that?” I asked.

“At Camp. Standing Rock.”

“How does it translate?” knowing that translation is always imperfect and some languages have words impossible to translate.

“It’s an ancient Lakota prayer. Invoking the ways of the Grandfathers. Right Spirit. Right Path. That kind of thing. I don’t really know a funeral prayer.”

It seemed a fitting send-off.

*proofreading edits: ‘Latinx’ spelling corrected, ‘the’ added to 6th paragraph, errant ‘/’ removed after Standing Rock at the end

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Bards & Other Liars

Do characters in literature recognize when their chapter has come to an end? Once upon a time I thought I wanted to tell stories.

This morning I sit looking out my window at rain-slick Troost Avenue cutting northward through the city, slicing like a two-edged sword, severing Kansas City by class and by race and yes that happened a long time ago, but the wounds are bleeding still. It’s springtime, and my apartment sits up above a retail space so the canopy of an ash splay light-green leaves outside my window. The tree is bursting through a patch of ground between the sidewalk and the street where it was long ago planted to shade the walkways now buckling above its roots.

That may be the end of a sentence. That may be the end of a page.

At Langley we learned that all stories had a beginning, and a middle, and an end.

That’s Samuel Pierpont Langley Elementary School. Not Langley, Virginia, of spy thriller fame. I am no more former CIA than Chuck Barris was.

Those early lessons in literary structure might well have been learned at Benjamin Syms Junior High or Poquoson High School, and I am certain literature classes reiterated those lessons at each step along the way: stories need exposition and conflict and resolution. That conflict might be with the environment, other people, or even one’s self, but the whole point of Story was ever and always the protagonist’s triumph over the object of conflict.

Story can be inspiration for mere mortals or cautionary tales for the overly adventurous.

Whether novels, short stories, epic poetry, folk tales, or Mythology, the narrative arc is the normative reality. Stories lend a sense of meaning to a meaningless universe. Stories erect order upon the quicksand of chaos.

We see it through ten thousand years of potshards and tablets and crumbling scrolls. Every encounter we moderns have with preliterate cultures suggests that stories conforming to this pattern are established at the essence of our being.

This is why I sit at my window, ransacking a collection of literary metaphors for the newest twist in this tale told by an idiot. Turning over a new leaf? Writing a new chapter? Turn the page? (Oh, God, no.)

Everything I try to say comes out hackneyed, trite, cliché.

At an age most men are approaching retirement and others are wondering how they will possibly scrape by on the crumbs that fall through the security net, I am taking my very first apartment. After a life living with roommates and spouses and family and friends I have a copy of a lease where the only name is mine. It feels like a big thing. Like the start of an adventure.

It has been my experience it is a mistake to try grafting a narrative arc over one’s own life. Besides, from Beowulf to Willie Loman, guys my age tend to make their literary mark by dying in an unpleasant fashion.

There is a passage in Breakfast of Champions where Vonnegut indicts “old-fashioned storytellers” for “mak(ing) people believe that life had leading characters, minor characters, significant details, insignificant details, that it had lessons to be learned, tests to be passed, and a beginning, a middle, and an end.” He diagnoses contemporary angst as stemming from the public’s efforts to live like fictional protagonists.

So maybe it’s not a new chapter, not a new page, not the start of a new adventure. Maybe it’s just a little plot of chaos where I can kick around for a while.

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Nooby Abba Naba

The quiet morning hours are my favorite, before most humans began moving about their bustley days, when the sound of tires whirring against the pavement are sparse and distant, and the palette of stars prepares to yield the field for the sun’s watch.

Leon, faithful canine companion, and I strolled softly through the grass, inhaling the sleepy sights and sounds and smells of the vanishing night.

It was temperate this morning with temperatures in the mid-fifties. The stars lost their luster behind a thin veil of cloud, but a thin lunar crescent clung to the gnarled chiaroscuro branches of a stately trees across the street like the fabled cradle. A handsbreadth north of this rocking watcher, the sun’s prow pushed a pink wake of dawn streaming into the cloudscape.

The earth began to gently quake and beyond neat rows of simple homes a mournful wail wafted toward me with rumbling building a crescendo as the locomotive passed northward.

The trees slowly came alive with strains of morning song from the warblers waking and flitting branch to branch. The notes rang behind us, before us, beside us, surrounding us with myriad avian arias blending together in a glorious salute to the sun.

There was nothing to do but sigh and say, “It’s great to be alive.”

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Treated This A’Way

Saturday was moving day. Saturday it snowed.

Monday night five tornadoes tore through the metro. Wednesday we were outside in shirtsleeves. But it snowed Saturday. Such is March in Missouri.

I had reserved a truck to move my worldlies from the suburban house where I’ve lived the past fifteen years to an apartment over a shop just south of Rockhurst University. Things don’t always work out like you plan.

This move has been a long time coming. Turning the page or turning over a new leaf are clichéd metaphors for a deliberate change of Life’s direction. So is starting a new chapter. I’m closing a book and choosing a new volume.

Before moving to Jackson County I never lived anywhere as long as five years. I’m a Vietnam-era Army brat. The 1960s Pentagon shifted men across the board like some Vegas prestidigitator or back alley purveyor of three-card Monty. Dependents were baggage, packed and toted behind the soldier to his next assignment, stored in post housing until the next move. It never paid to get attached to any community. You would be ripped from them, soon enough. Or they from you.

That’s neither to credit nor blame Army culture for my rootlessness. That is mostly my own doing.

My parents settled in Virginia once the Army assigned my father to Ft. Monroe. That’s on the tip of Point Comfort, overlooking the entrance to Hampton Roads. Up until recently there has been a fortified military base at that position since the early 17th Century. There was when my father joined TRADOC in 1968 after returning from Saigon. There were five of us children at the time and the post had no quarters suitable for a family our size so my parents bought their first home in Hampton. After that though Dad had a number of other assignments—including a second tour in Nam—the rest of the family stayed in place.

In 1972 my parents moved into the Westover Estate, in the small York county town of Poquoson. That’s been the family home since, and I’ve lived there several times after graduating high school, but I was really one of the pioneers of the Yo-yo Generation, moving in and out of the family home with several successive forays into school or marriages. Things don’t always work at like you plan.

I moved to Missouri to personally meet the fiery Brynhildr, whom I had known online in chatrooms and other fledgling tries at internet social media. In the 1990s internet relationships stayed on the QT, because anyone you told was just certain you were going to end up hanging from a meat hook, but by the early 2nd Mil it was a common form of dating. We had known several mutual friends to meet that way. As many are still together as those who’ve met at school or 12-step fellowships.

In a whirlwind we met and fell in love and bought the house in which we lived, planning to grow old together. Things don’t always work out like you plan.

So now I had a deadline to get out of the house.

My life has been a cycle of good news/bad news tales; my search for a new place to pitch my tent proved no exception. Barely had I begun my search than Opportunity picked a lock and threw open a door for me. With lease in hand I started making arrangements to transfer my small cache of worldly possessions into the new place.

Boxes of books and clothes and music, some objets d’art, electronic accoutrements. The plan involved loading boxes into my car at night, swinging by the apartment after work, thus transporting the bulk of my possessions. I also began pricing the cost of hiring a mover for a few pieces of furniture.

Setting plan in operation I delivered three boxes to the apartment on Wednesday. Thursday my car’s timing chain gave up the ghost in a head-in-the-hands, sackcloth & ashes kind of way.

Things don’t always work out like you plan. Go to Plan B.

I priced a truck rental, do-it-yourself moving. It wouldn’t be the first time. I found a place online. It’s great living in the 21st Century. (Except I distinctly remember promises of rocket packs and orbiting space colonies.) The address was on 40 Highway, just down the road from the house about a mile, an easy walk. I could pick up the cargo van Saturday afternoon, drive home, load it, drive to the apartment, take the stuff inside, and still have time to swing by the grocery before returning it.

It snowed Saturday.

It was a light snow and didn’t stick to the streets. I walked an asphalt path up and down the hills between my home and XYZ LLC, who were rental truck agents (among oh-so-many other things, I had dealt with them before, paying a utility bill, they acted as if it had been an imposition) and when I got there they were closed. Locked tighter than a drum. With a different company’s logo and material visible inside through the windows.

Shocked, I walked back home and double-checked the emailed receipt.

In the trades they tell you to measure twice and cut once. That’s always good advice. It turned out what I thought was XYZ LLC was ABC Ltd, which was a mile further up the road. Things don’t always work out like you plan.

I could wallow in it, or I could roll with it.

I walked to ABC to get my truck..

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Smoke & Mirrors

I work construction. I’ve worked construction most of my adult life.

My current job involves putting the finishing touches on the newest Big Box in a nearby Missouri suburb. I’ve been on the job two months. I’m a hired gun. I remember joking with other coworkers—decades ago—while working on a remodel for a different Big Box, “We’re mercenaries in the late 20th Century Store Wars!” and that got a big laugh, mostly for the pun. We were contingent workers, skilled labor working through temp agencies to fill gaps in a contractor’s workforce. I still am. They always complain we’re too expensive. We’re not as expensive as hiring some kid off the street and training him on the job.

The General Contractor just turned over possession of the building to the franchise’s corporate overlords. Their proxies, actually, and the new manager’s team is working fist in glove with district and regional representatives to assemble and stock all the gondolas full of merchandise. We sparkies are still dealing with the piddly-ass stage of the job. Loose ends. As a contingent workers, I am normally not on a job at this point. An electrical contractor typically sends me down the road and uses his own people. Which is fine by me.

Big Box, Incorporated, uses local temp labor to unpack and assemble the shelves and gondolas and display cabinets. They are a symbiotic organism, an ant colony, scurrying backwards and forth to unpack crates containing pieces, assemble them, and place them according to some grid. In the morning they sign in, take a midmorning cigarette break, then sign out at lunch, staying busy in between. They quickly become facile at their tasks. It’s pretty rote.

If anyone would know about myriad reasons for choosing work through temp agencies it would be me. I scan the crew’s gothic Midwestern faces, chiseled like Rushmore from years of wind whipping on the plains and hail hitting on the hills and sun beating down over what Icarus considers fly-over country. I wonder who among the group is a struggling writer or rapper or painter or sculptor or experimental digital artist.

If any. These appear pretty much what you’d expect to find working as day laborers: high school dropouts, felons, single-parents, white-chip collectors. There’s lots of ink and dental problems. Maybe a few young guys are working their first job; maybe they’re making an impression.

I have worked temp labor, unloading boxcars of produce. I still work temp labor, the only difference being they call me skilled and pay me more. It’s a hell of a way to make a living. I thought it was a good idea at the time.

A face among the crew stops me short. Through a glass darkly. It’s like looking at myself in the mirror, not because he bears me any resemblance but he looks like me, demographically. Beaten face. Weary eyes. Middle-aged white guy.

What leaves a man my age schlepping boxes for minimum wage on a catch-as-catch-can basis? That question is one of empathy, not judgment. There are a million paths to that destination. All of them are lined with stories.

I was well along that path, myself, wandering from dead-end, low-wage position to dead-end, low-wage position. But I was blessed. I was privileged. I had a younger brother who had shouldered his grindstone into crew with a Virginia Beach electrical contractor, and Mike was willing to teach me, tolerate me, and mentor me into the trade. It opened a different set of doors.

Seems electricity runs in our blood. I have two brothers who are electricians. Our maternal grandfather was IBEW back in the Depression, working at a hydroelectric plant in southeast Kansas at a job considered so vital to American infrastructure that it kept him out of the draft during WWII.

It’s a skill set which has proved valuable to me over the last quarter century. It kept me working most of the time. And most of those times I focused on the forest and not the trees.

At this point in this job it’s all about trees.

As I hauled a stepladder and my hand tools from one task to the next I noticed someone had purchased a batch of shiny new cordless drills for the installation. As shiny as plastic can be. Battery drills are faster than manual assembly. Labor is always the most expensive part of a job. One battery drill replaces a known quantity of human workers. It’s a trade-off. Sucks to be the worker.

It was a Craftsman™ drill. I’m not endorsing any product, and only mention it because it’s germane to the story. My experience is Craftsman makes an excellent around-the-house product but it doesn’t hold up for commercial use.

My father bought me one for Christmas one year. It was a long time ago. He knew I needed one for work, so he gave me one. My father used to reach out to me a lot and I was too stubborn to know it. He had definite ideas about gifts. Once, as I agonized about an appropriate gift for someone—my mother, perhaps, or whichever wife I was married to at the time—Dad told me, “Give her something nice she wants, but wouldn’t buy for herself.” He understood people on a tight budget prioritize their own desires last. The memory trickled to the back of my mind.

There’s a passage in Poe’s Rue Morgue where Dupin divines his companion’s thoughts by following his gaze and deducing the associations flowing through his consciousness. Such is the nature of memory: bubbling up from long buried reservoirs sensory experience. Altering each time we access it. Ricocheting off random bursts of recall. Ripping off scabs. Assuaging pangs of remorse. Summoning some childhood comfort.

So it was memories of my cordless drill soon scraped away the memory of another gift from dad. It was a camera. A Nikon. 35mm. It was not commercial grade, but it was more than a step up from the instamatics that flooded the markets so we could capture instants from our lives in fuzzy, out-of-focus freeze-frames that forever anchored the lability of their essence to the vantage of the family shutterbug.

I had used one of those cheap instamatics one afternoon, wandering in the woods down the street from the family home one snowy afternoon, exploring the chiaroscuro contrasts of virgin snow on the deep earthy hues of fenceposts and fallen trees, carefully composing the shots to highlight strong lines and textures.

I don’t even remember how old I was. Eighteen or nineteen. I was studying Theatre at Christopher Newport. I thought I wanted to make movies. I thought I wanted to be a combat photographer. Those were analog days and the medium was celluloid and the cost of both buying and processing film hamstrung many a hobby photographer.

After I developed the roll of film I showed the photographs to my parents.

In truth, Mom and Dad probably asked me to show them the pictures. As a youth I was unenthusiastic about interacting with my parents, even less so about them knowing anything about my activities. I never talked about what I thought I wanted to do with them. Maybe if I had they could have dissuaded me. Or directed me.

I doubt it. They never wanted to push me into anything.

I promptly put the encounter out of my mind. I know it happened. I can reconstruct a scene based on snippets from other incidents: Mom and Dad complimented me on the shots. I shrugged off the compliments. Compliments make me uncomfortable. It’s a parent’s job to praise their children. With a perfunctory shrug I slipped away and sequestered myself in my room.

Fast forward. Some Christmas morning. My parents’ house. I opened a medium, oblong box with a bit of heft and gift tag printed in my father’s neat, distinctive hand. I was bowled over to find this single-lens reflex Nikon. “When I saw those photographs you took,” Dad told me, “I wanted you to have a decent camera to work with.”

My father used to reach out to me a lot and I was too obtuse to realize it.

I went on to study photography. When I’m puffing I’ll say, “I went to film school.” Actually I went to a private liberal arts college and studied Journalism, Broadcasting and Film. I never made movies. I never became a photojournalist. But over the years I’ve found some level of satisfaction as a hobbyist. I grudgingly made the shift to digital and still enjoy composing shots to accent a line or a texture or a contrast that catches my eye.

I sigh at the realization of his confidence in me.

The thought is bittersweet.

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