The other night I had what would rightly be classed as a nightmare.  I found myself in a wilderness area with no other humans within a thousand miles.  I had minimal food, enough water, but no transportation or way of getting back to civilization. I was stuck with myself, forever. Even the local critters weren't coming near. The sense of panic at being stranded without any possible companionship was terrifying, and I woke up very disoriented.  My wife's immediate presence slowly eased me back into the "real world."

          The dream was undoubtedly spawned by a TV reality show called Alone, where ten hearty individuals must survive in a harsh wilderness separated from their companions. In other words, each person is dropped at an isolated location at least five miles from the nearest competitor. They carry in rudimentary items such as a flint, a tarp and a tool like an ax or shovel. The last man/woman standing, or staggering, who hasn't tapped out, wins half a million bucks.

          Having watched almost three seasons of this show, what becomes most apparent is that the harshest challenge is not lack of food, bad weather, or predatory animals such as cougars, bears and wild boar. The biggest obstacle to success, to staying for months at a rudimentary campsite, is lack of human interaction.  Competitors do leave early because of injury, lack of sustainable food sources or fear of predators, but loneliness seems to be the biggest take down. Humans are social animals, and apart from the occasional hermit or psychotic loner, we all need to hear that human voice other than our own.

          The challenge of Alone is one thing, but can you also be isolated when surrounded by people? Of course.  The mental ability to connect with others can be a fragile construct.  That connection depends on shared experience and behavioral symmetry. I would rather listen to a radio station where actual humans introduce the music as opposed to a satellite radio service where the music just appears without context.  If I am in a sports stadium with 50,000 other fans, I can feel a real connection despite not knowing any of them individually. On the other hand, I can be in the same stadium, going through personal turmoil, and feel totally alone, completely isolated.  Context is important.

          Family, hopefully, provides a stability which can alleviate feeling alone.  Healthy familial relationships are often an anchor in a confusing world. However, when such relationships are dissolved through discord or death, the feeling of isolation can be multiplied exponentially.  When a spouse dies after many years of a strong marriage, the remaining partner must often fight through crushing depression.  Is there a quick fix when one is drowning in personal loss or feeling walled off from everyone else?

          Alcohol and/or drugs can be a short term (and often fatal) solution to the angst of isolation, but there must be a better way.  For most, the best shot at achieving continued connection with "our better halves," and others, is a deep spiritual foundation.  Believing in something bigger than yourself can provide the comfort which gives this life meaning and direction. Faith is the ultimate upper.

          In just over fifty days,  the last survivor remained for the first two seasons of Alone.  Two different men who put up with severe depredation and a corrosive isolation.  In both cases they clung to and were sustained by an abiding faith in a personal God. Two Christian men who knew that they were never truly alone.  That the world could take such comfort.


        Having recently read The Wright Brothers by David McCullough, I am in mind of flight and its historical implications.  A few years back, my wife and I visited Kitty Hawk on a suitably blustery day. We took in the site where the first powered flight took place. They even have markers showing the exact 852 feet that the flyer traveled. I bought the commemorative T-shirt and a couple of postcards. I looked at all the diagrams and read and reread how manned flight works: thrust, drag, lift, weight, etc. Still hard for me to believe that heavy metal bodies can fly through the air with the greatest of ease.  But then, I've never understood how microwaves cook without heat. "Devil's work!" as my father would say.

          I am by no means a frequent flier, but am old enough to remember when flying anywhere was seen as a special and somewhat sacred occasion. In the fifties and early sixties, you actually got dressed up when taking a flight. Probably a suit coat and tie for guys and an appropriate dress for the ladies. Airlines such as Pan Am, TWA and Eastern (all long extinct) represented glamour and adventure when they took to the skies.

          Two of the perks of those earlier flights were the food and leg room. On most domestic flights of a couple of hours or more, you were fed a decent meal: a full breakfast or complete lunch or dinner along with real silverware. Treatment on overseas flights was sumptuous. It was almost like they appreciated your business.  Also, all seats were spaced so that you could stretch out your legs and not crowd the person sitting next to you.  In flight movies were standard. The food, the leg room and the movies were included in the price of a ticket.

          Skipping ahead fifty years ... You are on a four hour transcontinental flight. It cost you twenty-five bucks to check one bag. Your "free" food consists of a tiny bag of stale pretzels and a soda. There is minimal leg room and the seat is the width of a milk crate. You are seated next to a three hundred pound guy in shorts, flip flops and a wife beater which says, "Don't Screw With Me!" Personal hygiene is not his strong suit. Or you are sitting next to an old lady who has dumped an entire bottle of perfume over her head and on her lap in a travel carrier is a little pug ankle biter which sniffles continually. It cost ten bucks an hour for you to sign on to the airline Wi-Fi. The bathrooms are built for thin people who are all bones. Ain't progress great.

          If the Wright Brothers knew what was to come: airplanes as lethal weapons of war, metal tubes that make sardine cans look roomy, maybe they would have stuck to building bicycles. At least with a two wheel conveyance you were in control of your own travel arrangements. And no extra charge for baggage.

We're Talkin' Country

             Being "long in the tooth," traveling to a distant concert is now a major life experience.  The wife and I are driving over a hundred miles to see aging heartthrob and well known country singer Keith Urban, who of course was born in Australia (Put another possum on the barbie, mate).  After a pleasant drive on the interstate, skirting big rigs and getting out of the way of muscle cars whose drivers think 95 mph is the speed minimum, we check into our nondescript but serviceable chain motel. Usually we get stuck right next to the elevator and ice machine, but God is smiling on us, and all we have to endure is room art that celebrates the wonderful world of chili peppers.

           Preparing to leave for the concert, which is several miles away, I study three cluttered maps, trying to pinpoint the exact location of the venue, Talking Stick Arena, and attached parking garage. We brave a crowded freeway and exit into a mishmash of construction sites featuring bad signage and a riot of orange cones. The streets in this area are named after presidents, so I confuse Monroe with Madison, and we end up at the wrong parking garage closest to honest Abe. The garage attendant straightens me out and after passing little Tommy Jefferson and the old Indian fighter, Andy Jackson, we finally park in the right place.

          The concert site normally hosts a pro basketball team that last made any playoff noise in 1993. So you gotta fill those arena seats with something that works.  18,000 rabid souls are here to see Keith tear it up. Our seats are in the extremes of the nose bleed section (Mabel, can you tell if the stage is down there someplace? Did a bat just fly by?). The stair steps are very narrow, and since the wife has difficulty walking and climbing, the ticket checker guy suggests we try to swap our seats for something that will more easily accommodate our needs. Fortunately, after a lot of circuitous wrangling at a distant guest relations desk, I manage to get two seats in a small section reserved for special needs.  We can actually see the stage from this vantage point, a distinct plus.

          The two opening acts both have the requisite country twang, but you can barely understand a word of their songs. Something about pickup trucks, cheap whiskey, and tears by the bayou. It's as if they have a mouthful of Mississippi river mud. For old codgers like us, the music is so loud we have to cram ear buds deep into our listening cavities. Before the main act, I venture out into the concourse in search of appropriate munchies.  The lines at the beer and liquor stands are as long as those for the ladies’ restrooms. On the other hand, the concession stands for food have almost no takers.  I buy a tub of popcorn that has probably been sitting under a warming light since a World Wide Wrestling event two weeks ago.

          The folks crowding the concourse are your "typical" country fans.  Lots of cowboy hats, plaid shirts and jeans. Wide age range, but when you see a fifty something female wearing purple boots, denim hot pants, and a skimpy lace blouse that barely contains her surgically enlarged bazooms, it gives one pause for thought.

          When Keith finally takes the stage the place goes nuts. Being a guitar virtuoso, he knows how to crank it up while bathed in cascading lights and other special effects. Maybe it's because he is from Down Under and he has had to clearly annunciate, but you can actually understand much of what he is singing. It also helps that most of the raucous audience knows the words by heart and loudly sing along. The big screens, near and behind the stage, allow us to closely exam Keith's tattoos and watch the sweat trickle down his face. What a deal!  Most of his songs are about some version of love: found, lost or never there; however, since he is married to Nicole Kidman and has two cute daughters, I assume he is doing alright in "real" life. Urban's set booms along for a couple of hours, so we definitely get our money's worth, though it will be two days before my ears stop ringing.

          The return to the motel is not on the tourist map. I drive through the run-down bowels of the city in trying to find a different way back. I pass Humberto's Upholstery Shop three times.  Then, after a fitful night's sleep, (dreams about exploding cowboy hats and sway back horses drinking warm beer) the wife and I head back down the highway to our mundane but welcoming lifestyle.  I hear there's a Romanian gypsy country singer booked at the local arena, but we ain't goin.

Roller Derby Rave Up

             Division 1 Power Five NCAA football or Roller Derby? The ladies on skates win out this night. I could have gone to the big time football game (I have season tickets) but decided, that as a leisure activity, I would be seduced  by the siren song of  my first roller derby.

          This is family friendly. The venue is a nondescript warehouse building among many in an out of the way business park.  The wafting aroma of old sweat socks permeates the interior. The entry way features a large team picture where all the women are tricked out as zombies. Inside, the "flat track" is outlined with yellow tape on a faded green concrete floor. Battered folding chairs provide "close to the rink" seating for those willing to plop down a few bucks to watch the home team, ladies of the Vice Squad, take on The Surly Gurlies, from up the road a hundred miles.  The skaters are decked out in a helmet, wrist guards, elbow pads, knee pads, and mouth guards. Each skater sports a team jersey, and most also wear long padded knee length pants.  Serious business, folks.

          The rules are simple. Two thirty minutes halves. Each team places five on the track. A jammer on each team tries to break through the defense set up by blockers on the other team. "Points are scored when the first jammer on a scoring pass (every pass a jammer makes through the pack after the initial pass) laps members of the opposing team." Simple, but not easy. The defenders on each team can get pretty knarly.  Players range from double plus size to willowy and lean. You don't need an athlete's body to get in on this deal. Refs on skates try to maintain some semblance of order.

          Lots of bumping and grunting with quite a few spills, but not the helmet beating smack downs you see in movie versions of the sport. The names of the ladies are as good as the action: Pariah Carey, BITCH-Please, Dewey Decimatrix, Cherry PopHer, Van D. Lyzher, Strawberry Hurt Cakes. You get the idea.  In the back corner of the room is a well used bar where you can load up on Mickey's, Bud, nachos and pork rinds.  Fits right in with the Star Wars' Cantina. I get a hot dog and coke, no excitement there. The football game I am missing is on the TV.  Can't touch roller derby, buddy. I'm down with flop sweat and skates.

          As the teams race or bump around the oval, the medical staff sitting next to me is preparing for any injuries. The EMTs are rolling bandages and chatting up the ladies in red T shirts which say, "Fresh Meat." At breaks in the action these women touch up/ repair the yellow tape that defines the track boundaries and frequently gets torn.  A skater, PyRo Blaze, comes over to "Medical," a pained look on her face. A broken bone? bad floor burn? No, her skates need tightening.  The EMT reaches into his black bag, pulls out a wrench and tightens a loose nut on the bottom of the skate.  Another thankful patient.  Meanwhile, my son, a true millennial, has one eye on the skaters and the other on his smart phone, some worldwide video game championship.  Vivid reality vs. virtual vacuity. 

          At half time the score is Vice Squad 63, Surly Gurlies 127. The home team is getting walloped, but the fans are inoculated against depression. Being here is all that counts.  During the break, the musical entertainment is provided by The Desert Crawlers, three raggedy guys who look like they just escaped from someone's garage. They blast out bad 80s metal music, and are cheered on by twelve year old girls who think they've hit the big time. Someone passes by me wearing a hat that says, "Make America Skate Again."  I knew Trump had it wrong.

          In the second half the announcing team, which looks like they just stepped out of Duck Dynasty, encourages the fans to give it up for the home team. The cheering apparently works, because the home team storms back with Mona Handful punching up that tote meter with killer skating and excellent jamming.  But just when Vice Squad seems to be closing in, the Surly Gurlies release their secret Jammer.  Luz Chaos is about five foot tall and ninety-five pounds. A ghost on skates.  She passes though blockers as if invisible.  Now you see her, now you don't.  The final score is Vice Squad 130 Surly Gurlies 183. The ladies shake hands and will soon return to their day jobs in some office, school or retail outlet.

          As we leave, I grab a roller derby bumper sticker and a flier promoting the next showdown: Furious Truckstop Waitresses vs. The Bandoleras.  A full moon hangs over the warehouse. Life can be crazy good.


          Some would think that a retired infantry officer would be into killing wild game and hanging all those trophy heads on the wall.  Blow away Bambi with an AR15 modified to automatic.  Well, that ain't my shtick.  When I was active Army I fired my share of 45 cal pistols, M16s, 50 cal machine guns, grenade launchers, LAWs (bazookas), and other cool purveyors of death. However, my predilection has always been to let Bambi live so that she and her kind can overpopulate their grazing area and thus die of starvation.

          However, years ago I did want to hang a cow skull on the wall in my man cave, but the wife nixed the attempt.  Seems that when she was a little kid, the furnished rental home her family lived in had a huge moose head just above the bathroom door, and it traumatized my wife for life. So, no animal heads or African tribal masks (inherited from my parents) on the walls, ever.

          Since I couldn't get my cow skull, I thought my options were zero; however, I hadn't counted on the plush or stuffed animal market. Made for little kiddos, many of these fabric creations mimic the real thing on a much smaller scale. So when I came across a plush moose head mounted on a wooden plaque, I asked my wife, with some trepidation, if I could buy one and hang it on the wall of my den. To my great surprise she went along with my request because the fore-said moose wasn't threatening, and in actual fact was kinda cute.

          This purchase set off, over the years, a "hunting" trip for a wide variety of plush creatures found in the American West.  After the moose, I first added Buffalo Billy; then along came Juan the Javelina, mother and daughter coyotes, and Steve the skunk, who says, "What's that smell!" I have since added Mr. Beaver, Rocky Raccoon, Bruce the bat, a gray wolf and kit fox, and Leanna Linx. Also a big horn sheep, Pablo the prairie dog, some turtles, a river otter, a pack rat, and a couple of snakes.

          Not to be restricted to land based critters, I started collecting owls, a bald eagle, and a red-tailed hawk. I went on to snare a variety of birds, such as the morning dove, cactus wren, Arizona quail and a road runner (beep beep). All of these denizens inhabit a desert themed couch and crevices of my inner sanctum.  One of my prized acquisitions is Carlos the coatimundi.  For years I was stymied in my internet search for said coatimundi. Then one day I was in a store for serious hikers (must have taken a wrong turn) and there was Carlos, waiting for me all this time.

          What can be said of a man with a wall dedicated to four generations of military service, who also is obsessed with stuffed animals? Some kind of deep psychological need, unmet in childhood?  An aversion to killing anything that can't defend itself ? (I do not have a grizzly bear in my collection). Maybe I just like being surrounded by my little buddies. Maybe it's another way not to feel so alone in the world. Goodnight Buffalo Billy, goodnight Rocky Raccoon, goodnight...

The Mosquito

          I'm not concerned about the Zika virus, at least not yet.  But I have had an issue with a particular mosquito for the last six weeks.  He, she, it, has been feasting on my arms as I take an afternoon snooze in the lazy boy. The room is large, but I figured that I could kill the little mother if I was just diligent enough. It knows enough not to land on my arm when I am awake, and I have momentarily seen it flitting around the room, but always it disappears into the background.

          This story is bigger than the mosquito.  Life is full of the itch you can't scratch, the trip never completed, the opportunity just out of reach. We want to be in control of our little world, but it seems the world is almost always in control of us, frequently in a negative way. How do we find a smidgen of peace in a world where the damn mosquito just won't die on our terms?

          Some look for peace by avoiding the world altogether; get thee to a nunnery, monastery or just camp out in your basement with eighteen hours worth of video games (you can sleep the other six). There is a potpourri of drugs which can give you a sliver of peace until you crash back into the real world (if the drugs don't kill you first. Goodnight, sweet Prince). Family can provide peace until Uncle Frank goes off the rails at Thanksgiving and insults his unwedded pregnant niece. Or Dad or Mom tells you they are getting a divorce because they never really could stand their spouse, and this new flame of theirs will meet all their needs.

          Marx famously said that, "Religion is the opiate of the masses." Only lunkheads and Luddites would fall for it. Intelligent, rational people, will never be sucked in by religious mumbo jumbo. Why is it then that so many folks who have a strong spiritual center, who believe in God, find actual long term peace in their lives? Could it be that investing in something much bigger than yourself creates a sense of wholeness and a better understanding of your place in the universe?  God is in control, so we don't always have to be.

          I wish I could say that I was able to vanquish the mosquito and thus achieve a victory in this small area of my life. However, though I haven't been bitten in a few days, the little bugger is probably out there, hovering, waiting to partake of my O positive blood.  But, the world is still turning; the seasons change. I will head for the lazy boy and dream of the first rains on the Serengeti.


          While cultural and social change is ongoing, certain historic periods experience a burst of innovation that leaves much of the population gasping for breath.  Why can't things stay the same? What is wrong with a good buggy whip and a horse that can average four miles per hour?  How does a cell phone improve the need for concise limited conversation?

          If you were born around 1860, your life became one of unimaginable and potentially threatening possibilities.  The 1893 Chicago World's Fair was known as The White City because of the extensive use of electric street lights, an emerging phenomenon. By the early 1900s, most cities and many towns had outdoor and indoor electric lighting. What to do with all that leftover lamp oil?  Would an electric short set your house on fire?

          In 1899, Henry H. Bliss was the first person killed by a motor vehicle crash in the United States. Since then, mayhem on the roads has been an American tradition. To those born in the mid 1800s, the horseless carriage seemed more a belching dragon than the future of transportation.

          For many, The first phonographs and telephones, while more than a parlor trick, , just added to the growing discord.  Moving pictures, while opening up the world, were likely to corrupt the young with their lurid story lines.  Overhead, men sundered the sky in flying machines. If God had wanted men to fly, they would have been born with wings.

          By the time you were approaching your dotage, the radio had been introduced. True magic to make voices and music appear out of nowhere. You remember back to the days when cousin Mary plunked out a quiet tune on the piano and you read poetry by the soft light of a kerosene lamp. Old Ben, your reliable horse, was waiting to take you to the county fair. Wasn't that a balanced world where men and women could experience true harmony?

          If you were born in the middle of the 20th century, as I was, future change could be just as exciting and disconcerting as it was to those born a hundred years earlier. Television killed the golden age of radio and the studio system for making movies. The growing lure of a little box with black and white figures gave us Howdy Doody but also stark documentaries about a potential nuclear holocaust.

          In the sixties, the lone phone in my college dorm was at the end of the hall.  It only worked when some drunk student hadn't pulverized it during a rowdy weekend. The phone was rotary dial; it was another twenty years before push button technology had become common.  The Xerox machine came along in the 60s killing the carbon paper business and making my research essay on minor English poets much easier to duplicate.

          The seventies brought about continued war protests, FM radio, and cassette players in cars. Finally we were free of having to listen to Cousin Clem on the radio, trying to sell us some used rust bucket at Auto Heaven. Instead, I could play "Stairway to Heaven" ten times in a row (not recommended).

          The eighties were relatively benign, but introduced widely available cable TV, CDs, the VCR, which was impossible to program, and of course the microwave. I wasn't hot on buying a $300 baby bottle warmer for our first crumb cruncher, but once the deed was done, I became an acolyte. Pizza rolls for me, in two minutes, at three in the morning when the kid had colic made the situation bearable. Still, as my dad said of the microwave, "Devil's work! How can you cook without heat?"

          The nineties was when all hell began to break loose: the first personal computers and early cell phones. Information overload had officially arrived. Buying our initial computer in the early nineties was a major family decision. Could I learn DOS? What if I hit the wrong key?  Within a week my four year old was more advanced than me, and he has never looked back.

          I waited two years before signing up for the internet with AOL because I didn't want to turn over my soul. It got sucked out anyway. Now, in the 21st century, we clutter our lives with a desktop, a laptop and a couple of tablets. Only ten seconds away from discovering the gross national product of Romania or reading War and Peace online.

          The first cell phones were the size of phone booths, but soon you could fit the little sucker in the palm of your hand (before 7" smart phones).  Initially you just made simple calls, but within a few years texting and internet access have made the phones many parents' worst nightmare. Their kids are driving while texting, surfing and yakking, a prescription for disaster until driverless cars become the norm. (Henry H. Bliss from 1899 meet Joshua Brown from 2016, the first person to die in a self-driving car accident). In the current era, smart phones will do your taxes, while you Skype mom in Hawaii, and order a 60" flat screen from Amazon. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

          I recall a lazy day in the early sixties. I have just finished watching a cartoon on one of the three black and white networks. Slow dialing a friend on a sturdy black phone, we decide to go to the library to check out books. As I walk to his house, I listen on my small transistor radio to top forty hits and hear John Kennedy say we are going to the Moon. The Moon!  What can ever top that?

Beddy Bye

I first started thinking about beds years ago when I was in a damp foxhole in Georgia in January. As part of a military exercise, I was finishing up my night watch, keeping an eye out for the presumptive bad guys, though I'm not sure what I was supposed to see on a cold moonless night. As my replacement spelled me, I hunkered down in a thin army issue sleeping bag; frigid, bone tired and fairly oblivious to the rocks and roots that were digging into my back.  I did wonder, however, what folks slept on throughout the ages.

It seems that beds came into fashion around 10,000 BC during the Neolithic Age, not to be confused with Neo in The Matrix. Before this, folks just curled up in the dirt and used a flat rock for a pillow; talk about neck pain. No wonder the average life span was about twenty years. Anyway, these Neo people got the idea of putting some grass in a pile and then throwing an animal skin over the top. Voila! You have a junior twin bed. No fitted sheet needed. They also figured out that you could crush grain with a stone to make bread flour. Does it get any better than that?

Jumping ahead to 3600 BC, the Persians weren’t getting enough use out of goat skins, so they sewed some together, filled them with water, and behold, the first water beds were invented. This is what the Iranians (Persians) still use today. They have millions of goats and will soon have nuclear weapons, a slight leap in technology.

By 200 BC the Romans were stuffing cloth bags with reeds, hay and wool to make their beds. If you were part of the upper classes, your bed bag was stuffed with feathers. Your slaves, thus, spent a lot of their time killing ducks. Civilization had its perks. However, if you were a barbarian in the outer regions you still slept on a bunch of itchy pine boughs and used a former enemy’s head for a pillow.

For the next sixteen centuries, beds didn’t change much until the Renaissance came along. A lot of folks with dinero and artistic inclinations began covering their lumpy mattresses with rich brocades, velvets and silks. The beds still weren’t very comfortable, but you were looking good when you lay on them. In the late 1600s, King Louis IV of France had a bed so big that it could fit him, all his mistresses and their kids, plus half his obsequious courtiers.

Over the ensuing years, things sped up for common folk. A box is now used for the mattress so you don't roll into the fireplace in the middle of the night.  Then, in 1857, the first coil spring construction for bedding is patented. leading to the inner spring mattress and sex being more noisy than ever. The next century sees a variety of improvements to the basic bed such as artificial mattress fillers (the ducks were happy) and then futons coming along in the 1940s. Japan may have lost the war, but they sure knew how to turn a couch into a bed.

The 1960s saw the introduction of the modern waterbed which was emblematic of the hippie culture and was a real groovy way to sleep. However, when they leaked, life was like a real bummer, man. By 1999, the queen-size mattress beat out the twin for most popular choice. All those folks with restless leg syndrome needed more space.  Also more adult singles were doing sleepovers with their main squeeze, so a single bed wouldn't cut it.

Now we have reached a place where bed options are as numerous as pizza toppings. Wanna garlic flavored mattress stuffed with cheese?  Anyway, there are all kinds of innerspring mattress designs, 1-10 on the squeaky scale. You can get foam "memory" cores that take 800 years to deteriorate (the planet screams in pain!). How about an air bed? You use to float that in the pool. Finally, sleep number beds, where you can set the firmness on your side at a concrete 70 while your significant other wants the cloud effect at number 25.

If Zog, in 10,000 BC, had been able to score a pillow top mattress,  centuries of grumpy humans killing each other might have been avoided. As I lay shivering in that damp foxhole many years ago, my thoughts were not on offing the bad guys.  I just wanted the sandman to show me a big pile of leaves somewhere, smothered in goat hides.

The End of Silence

                I'm standing next to the gas pump, and I'm hit with a video in the pump window extolling the virtues of some new lime flavored junk food.  No mute button for this auditory assault. How did we get here; why am I faced with a talking gas pump?

          For most of human history, ambient noise was confined to local critters or the whooshes, pitter patter and thunderous cracks of weather phenomena.  Man was hopefully safe in his/her abode where the only mechanical noise, at least by the 1700s, was the ticking of a mantle clock. Outside there could be the sound of horses and passing carriages.  If you were in the country, the lowing of cattle, the bleat of sheep, the trill of birds.  The most disruptive sound was probably a loud human voice.  No sensory overload here.

          The industrial revolution brought big machines powered mostly by water and steam engines.  The iron horse huffing and puffing along its tracks. The new factories as noisy places that constantly assaulted the ears. Click –clacking everywhere. By the 1870s, offices were being assailed by typewriter keys, and not long after, the first telephones. Then, in the early 1900s, the automobile makes an appearance, backfiring its way down rutted roads.

          However, it was still possible, by and large, to find relative peace at home, in stores, restaurants and most places outdoors.  But by the 1920s and 30s, along came radio and jukeboxes. Listen to Jack Benny, dance to Benny Goodman. One of the few semi quiet places left was elevators with Muzak gently cradling your ride. Finally the one eyed monster, TV made its ubiquitous appearance in the late forties and early fifties.  Turn your imagination off; excretable pabulum was here to save the day.  Nothing on? Turn up the volume and watch the test pattern.

         In the sixties, below the boom of jets, the hippies tried a back to nature movement where you would live in a tent or commune and avoid the world's electronic footprint. Groove to the stars; trip to a babbling brook. However, this approach pretty much collapsed when Summer Windsong found out that Amber Moonbeam had stolen her tie dye skirt and wasn't even carrying her weight in the turnip patch.  Unicorns and utopia just weren't in the cards.

          Flash forward fifty years and look where we've ended up.  The person in the stall next to you is having a loud argumentative cell phone rant with their significant other, when all you want is silence while hunkering down. You are eating a burger in a "family friendly" chain restaurant while being bombarded with hip hop drivel where somebody's "hoe" keeps switching hot pants. In the waiting room, at the doctor's office, the flat screen is running a DVD about six early signs of dementia. You try to block it out by focusing on your tablet, but suddenly, a blaring promo pops up for some corrupt political candidate. As you drive home from work, you are stuck at a light next to some guy whose tricked out car shakes and vibrates because of ten well placed monster speakers.

          I try to get away with a walk on a desert trail; just me, the coyotes, snakes and javelinas. A woman comes towards me gesticulating wildly. Is she in trouble; is there immediate danger?  No, with a Bluetooth device attached to her ear, she is just being animated while she talks. Kill the cell towers.

          Back in 12th century France, Jean the Younger is knelt in prayer in a magnificent Gothic cathedral, light shafts streaming through stained glass windows. Suddenly a bunch of monks start in on Gregorian chants. How do you commune with God through such racket? Where is silence when you need it?

When Men Wore Hats

Whatever happened to the ubiquitous wearing of hats in western civilization?  There was a time when men in Europe or the Americas would not be seen in public without either a fedora, a wool cap, or a boater in summer (women in hats is a whole nother story).  Fashions obviously change, but what precipitated men retreating to ball caps, if they wear any hat at all?  Was it a comet like the one that took out the dinosaurs?

          In most species the male is more colorful or more dramatic looking than the female.  Check out a male and female cardinal side by side, or a male and female lion.  The guys get the flair. With humans, the female tends to be the fashion plate, though there have always been exceptions like early Elton John or Liberace.  In the sixteen and seventeen hundreds in Europe, upper class men tended to be the peacocks. They wore bright clothing, and more importantly, their broad brimmed hats were a sight to behold. Decked out with feathers and fancy hat bands, these creations not only made a fashion statement, but protected the wearer from human waste dumped from second story windows.

          As the centuries progressed, western men, in public, were still decked out in tricornes, top hats, bowlers, homburgs, Panamas and fedoras. However, by the 1960's all of this began to change.  Going hatless became de rigueur.   Most hats ended up in second hand stores or at swap meets.  The baseball cap was barely in its ascendency.  What caused this seismic change? In a word (or two) John F. Kennedy.  Kennedy made going bareheaded in public "cool." It didn't hurt that he had a head of hair which would cover a small island.  Suddenly, the windblown look, at least for men, became the norm. If you were bald, you'd better invest in sunscreen, because the hat thing was no longer happening.  There would always be holdouts to the "hatless" brigades, but walking around in a deer stalker did not signal "in crowd." There were of course genre exceptions like cowboys and military men, but the mainstream succumbed to the nature boy look. Hat makers were throwing themselves off bridges, just like during the Great Depression.

          On some level the eventual emergence of ball caps kinda saved the day.  Largely as a function of team loyalty (Chicago Cubs, oh my) or advertising (Bobbi Joe’s Tiki Bar), more and more guys wore these hats on a daily basis in public and private.

        "Honey, do you have to wear that hat at the table?"

        "Look, Ma, I don't tell you to take off your makeup first."

Ball caps are so prevalent that I once taught a college class where most of the guys and half the girls were adorned with said headgear.  Never a thought to remove the covering so I could more easily see their bored faces.

          Will more varied and formal headgear ever make a substantial comeback or must we just watch episodes of Madmen and Inside the American Mob to relive the golden era of male sartorial splendor?  Unfortunately the primacy of the hatless look is probably here to stay unless you live in Afghanistan where men without pancake hats and beards are summarily executed. Maybe that’s the way to bring back hats. I’m just gonna go grab my Arizona Feeds cap and pray for rain.


Great Faces, Great Places

Warning: this piece is about a family vacation. Should not be read in the presence of small children or while operating machinery.

The Journey

           Why South Dakota? Well, Mt. Rushmore is on my bucket list along with being launched into the heavens by the Virgin Galactic space project. I can do mountain carvings now; space won't be available for a few years. The night before our flight to "Great Faces, Great Places," we stay in an airport hotel where the room doors are so heavy that it takes two people to open them. Thankfully my wife is also going on the trip, or we would've had to sleep curled up in the hallway.

          Farkel Airlines flies out of a former Air Force base dotted with Quonset huts. Going through security we basically have to strip. I can't even keep Kleenex in my pockets.  Tissues are definitely a potential threat.  My wife is wearing open toed sandals which she has to take off since she is under seventy-five. Eighty year old shoe bombers are obviously not a problem.  To board the plane you have to ascend a precarious portable ramp out on the tarmac.  Back to the fifties?  Once onboard, I'm seated next to two folks who are returning to South Dakota for high school graduations. One guy's daughter is graduating, and the woman has a niece who will sashay to "Pomp and Circumstance." Uncle Gomer has just gotten out of prison so he can attend the daughter's graduation, and the niece is five months pregnant, but barely showing. I tell them that I would be happy to attend the festivities but have a prior commitment with four presidents and a large herd of buffalo.

          On landing, we pick up a rental mini-van, and it takes me fifteen minutes to figure out the transmission shifter, six stage air conditioning and touch screen radio. I am a luddite in a land of tech freaks. Our hotel in Rapid City has one glaring disadvantage which I had failed to realize when booking. It is physically attached to Wally World Water Park, the biggest indoor aquatic experience in the whole region.  Of course our room is near the elevator, and the hallway is constantly a thunder with screeching kids and the pounding of their racing feet. I'd prefer being curled up in the hallway of the other hotel.


          And now the scenic wonders.  First, we head to the Badlands, a large rocky area that resembles a rhino's rear end and the wrinkles on the face of a lifetime smoker. The place is insufferably dry and extremely hot or cold depending on the season, with a wind that never stops. Both the Lakota Sioux and French trappers called the place bad lands. Only someone out of their mind would want to spend any time in the area. So, of course, nine hundred thousand tourists flock here every year. My favorite sign says, "Avoid the Prairie Dogs, They Have Plague." Driving back to the hotel, the check engine light comes on. This in a vehicle with less that five thousand miles. I call the rental company, and they say ignore the warning; it happens all the time. So for the next six days, I get to stare at the emoticon of an angry orange engine block that seems to scream. "If you don't fix this problem now, you're screwed!"

Mt. Rushmore

          For the trip, this is the big enchilada, the cat's meow.  The image that sells more souvenir plates than Niagara Falls.  It looks bigger than the pictures (ya think?). The wife and I are truly awed by the overall effect. We decide to get the " lightweight handheld wand" for the audio tour, 24 stops. We are the first customers of the day, and Mel the clerk has been out six months for triple bypass surgery. It's his first day back, and he can't figure out how to log us in on the new computer system. After twenty minutes (we could have finished the tour by now) he finally gets help from a young girl who rents kid strollers.  Maybe they should switch jobs.

          The audio tour tells us lots of stuff. Rushmore was carved by Gutzon Borglum and crew between 1927-1941.  Just something to pass the time during the Great Depression. Gutzon wanted to honor great cultural figures in American history, but it was a coin toss between the presidents and the Marx brothers: Harpo, Groucho, Chico and Zeppo.  It's still amazing that Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln made the cut.  I'm taking the obligatory pictures, and notice that the guy next to me is shooting gang signs as he takes selfies with the carvings over his shoulder. I guess he will text them to his Mexican Mafia buddies in San Quentin. Turns out our boy Gutzon had a short fuse and basically was meaner than hell. He got those heads carved through intimidation and the ability to convince people to come see some strange apparition in the middle of nowhere. Props to him. We pass on the souvenir plate, but I get a bookmark with the Marx brothers in profile.

Custer State Park

          I don't know about you, but I'm here for the critters.  The park is named after a dead white guy who got his whole command wiped out when he mistook ten thousand Sioux warriors for some Indian maidens making buffalo jerky.  Apparently, the twenty minute multi-media show in the visitor’s center is narrated by Kevin Costner because he was once seen dancing with wolves. The park is listed in the world’s top ten wildlife destinations, (which includes Daytona Beach on Spring break) so cameras and video recorders are in overdrive.  We’re digging on the buffalo herds while listening to R. Carlos Nakai flute music. Once millions roamed the plains, but by the 1880s there were less than a thousand left in the country after real sportsmen shot them from railcars.  Today, after conservation, there are about fifty thousand in the U.S. and Canada, and around twelve hundred call Custer State Park home. I expect to see some kid’s parents trying to take a picture of little Melinda sitting on Buffalo Billy but no such idiocy today.  The prairie dogs are lethargic during our visit, probably recovering from the plague. Pronghorns (antelope), wild turkeys and begging burros are more juiced. Animal Planet should park a crew here fulltime.

Devils Tower

          The five musical tones from Close Encounters of the Third Kind are bouncing through my head as we come over a rise and first see Devils Tower, Wyoming.  Geologists disagree on how it was formed or what it means, but this strange formation, which looks like a huge upside down garbage can, is sacred to Native Americans.  Everyone else sees it as a rock climbing project or simply an anomaly to mark off on the “I’ve been there” check list. I'm waiting for the space aliens to return Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) to the landing pad next to the tower, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen today.  However there are four buses of Japanese tourists who swarm the monument, buying every souvenir in sight.  I consider purchasing a plaster rendition of the tower, but realize I can do the same thing with mashed potatoes at a reduced price.

 Crazy Horse Memorial

          It seems appropriate that our last vacation stop is at a place that honors this dude who was part of the guys who wiped out Custer at the Little Big Horn.  Because of a sacred stone, Crazy Horse thought he was invincible until he was finally arrested, and some cowardly long knife stabbed him in the back.  The Sioux were ticked that their sacred Black Hills were being desecrated with the mugs of Great White Fathers, so they found Korczak Ziolkowski (try saying that four times fast) who was willing to carve Crazy Horse out of a mountain, the size of which would make Rushmore look like a postage stamp.  When the memorial is completed by 2110, or sometime in the next millennium,  the space people may land here instead of Devils Tower.  After all you will be able to see Crazy Horse from the Zeta Riticuli galaxy.  On leaving, we buy a necklace from a woman who is "an enrolled member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe."   So what if the beads are from China and the silver from Chile?  There are some positives to "going native" on a trip like this, but I must admit, I couldn't bring myself to eat a buffalo dog or bear stew.  My loss, I'm sure.

The Return

          For the night return flight, oddly, we are waved through security with nary a shoe removed, computer checked or tissue examined. Seems we were chosen for a pre check program that assumes we are not a terror risk.  Maybe six days in South Dakota made us both look like we were over seventy-five. At the gate, awaiting departure, I am reading the local Rapid City rag. Above the fold, the headline: Judge Says Buffalo Chip Not A Town. And to think I almost missed the article.

          Once on the plane I decide to recuse myself from conversation, but the wife is busily chatting with her seatmate.  It seems that the woman is a widow who just visited a man she met on the internet. He has a hog farm in Wyoming, and she has to decide if she wants to spend the rest of her life throwing slop to Porky Pig.  If it was me I'd say, "tha tha tha That's all Folks!" but love works in mysterious ways.  After a two hour flight and a three hour drive home, we collapse in our humble abode. As my wife opens her suitcase, a card spills out headed Notice of Baggage Inspection.  Seems that TSA went through everything inside. Nice work fellas. You easily let through exploding computers but go crazy over dirty underwear. Oh for the days of the mighty Sioux and buffalo that run as far as the horizon.

Memorial Day 2016

Lt. Col. (Ret.) Robert Matte Jr.

 This Monday, May 30, 2016 Americans across the nation and around the world will observe Memorial Day.  Its first official observation was May 5, 1868, when it was called Declaration Day.  In 1968 it was decided that Memorial Day would be observed on the last Monday in May. It is a day to remember those who have sacrificed and died in our nation’s service.

I have been reading a series of histories on World War II. Rick Atkinson's Liberation trilogy about the North African and European campaigns and Ian Toll's trilogy about war in the Pacific.  These books are fascinating insights into the courage and persistence required of both men and women in defending our freedoms. Over 400,000 American service members made the ultimate sacrifice during the war including more than 400 military women.  A great many of the fallen are either buried or memorialized overseas.

The American Battle Monuments Commission was established by Congress in 1923, and currently the Commission administers, operates and maintains on foreign soil, 25 permanent American burial grounds, and 27 separate memorials, monuments and markers, including three memorials in the United States.  Those buried or memorialized at these sites fought in both World War I and World War II.

One of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific campaign occurred in June 1944 on the Japanese held island of Saipan in the Marianas chain.  71,000 U.S. troops, marines and army, faced 32,000 Japanese determined to fight to the last man. Over several days of intense fighting, the Japanese garrison was eliminated with only 900 prisoners taken. The rest were killed or committed suicide. U.S. casualties were 3, 426 killed and 10, 364 wounded.  Three servicemen received the Medal of Honor posthumously. Today, the Saipan American Memorial, on Saipan, honors not only those who died on this island but also the 21,000 marines, soldiers and sailors whogave their lives on the nearby islands of Tinian and Guam. Throughout the Pacific campaign, marines, sailors, soldiers and airmen, willingly risked their lives so that the America they knew and loved would remain free from foreign threat.

The European theater saw equally desperate fighting.  One of the purposes of American Battle Monuments is to give visitors a place to honor those who didn't come home. Every Memorial Day ceremonies take place at these cemeteries, monuments and memorials. Sacrifices are remembered; thanks given.  Throughout the year one can walk the rows of crosses at American cemeteries in Normandy, near Rome, in North Africa and in the Philippines, among other locations.

Jac Conlon never knew his father.  Capt. Robert B. Conlon was killed in action, in Italy, on May 21, 1944 while attacking a German held bridge. His heroic efforts, just before his death, saved the lives of 1,000 men.  Jac Conlon reflects on the emotion of visiting his father's grave site.:

"He’s buried in Nettuno, the American military cemetery. It’s about 100 miles north of where he was actually killed, the cemetery, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful tribute to those men and women who sacrificed. To visit the place where he was killed in the area, it was very important to me because of never having known him, or anything, here was an opportunity for me to be near his bones, so to speak. And to just stand in front of the cross and cry. And put my hand on the cross, and stand up, come to attention and salute him and tell him I miss him."

As a nation, we must salute all those who fight for our country and especially those who pay the ultimate price. As a people we are nothing without those who stand on the wall of freedom and say, "You are not breaking this down today, or tomorrow, not ever."  God protect the United States of America.

Of Libraries and Such

       The first library was a caveman putting a berry stained hand print on a rock and then lending it to his friend Ugh, so Ugh could study and try to imitate the concept.  Libraries have come a long way since then, but the concept of putting gathered knowledge in one place is a primal desire. Around 3,000 BC, the first formal library was a collection of clay tablets with symbols that the Sumerians used to show how many camels Adiz traded for some guy's daughter.

          Over the next couple of thousand years, more libraries consisted of documents made from papyrus or parchment.  The Egyptians made papyrus sheets by gathering reeds from the Nile while trying to avoid becoming crocodile or hippo food.  In Europe, Hans killed a goat or calf and used some of the skin as parchment to chronicle his living space.  My hut is your hut.  The great library at Alexandria was established in the third century BC. It held the pinnacle of knowledge from the ancient world, and the harbor's massive lighthouse was a beacon to folks far away. A beacon which allowed Julius Caesar, in 30 BC, to burn up the Egyptian fleet with a few errant sparks setting the library on fire. Centuries of learning went up in flames. Whoopsie!  In China, Cai Lun, the court eunuch, had a lot of free time since romance was now out of the question. Instead, he invented paper in 105 AD. Paper was great in fostering burgeoning bureaucracies and the mind numbing statistical libraries that went with them.

          When Rome fell and the barbarians used the books they found for toilet paper,  meat wrappers and fire starters, accumulated knowledge took another nose dive.  Thankfully, during the Dark Ages (candles were deemed an environmental hazard), a bunch of monks decided to kill time by copying biblical scripture and other ancient texts.  They spent hours in cold, damp and dim stone garrets, and all they got for it was a lousy hair shirt. However knowledge was preserved and Christianity advanced. In the Muslim world, the House of Wisdom, the great library in Bagdad, lasted a few hundred years until the Mongol hordes showed up and destroyed all the books in a couple of days.  So much for a cross cultural exchange.

          As the 1400s rolled around, libraries had reappeared, but books literally cost an arm and a leg because each one had to be hand copied. A guy named Gutenberg (no one knows his first name) saw vintners using wine presses and figured if you could crush a grape you could print a book. Eureka!  Movable type then created the mass paperback market and gave Tarantino the title for his movie Pulp Fiction.  Gutenberg printed the first Bible, putting all those scribbling monks out of work.  Some of their illuminated books would now end up in the remainder bin.  Unfortunately Mr. G. had to print the first version of the Good Book in Latin, so most locals still couldn't read squat about Jesus. Then, in the 1500s, Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation by having printed copies of his 95 theses slapped on doors all over Germany.  Some leisure reading. Next, the Bible started being printed in English, German, French, etc.  Things slow on a Saturday night in Wartburg?  Read in German about all those demons being sent into a herd of pigs by Jesus. If Mr. G. had only gotten a patent for his press, his progeny would have been in the big marks for generations.

          For the next few centuries, universities became home to the largest libraries of new books careening off the presses. However, there were still many individuals collecting books.  Tommy Jefferson had a huge private library which he gave to the new American government.  However, during the War of 1812 the British burned Jefferson's donated library to the ground. Sense a pattern here?  Over the millennia, great public libraries sprang up around the world. Many had incredible architecture which was worth taking in even if you were illiterate or homeless.  A lot of these libraries, that weren't bombed into oblivion in various wars, survive today (there's that fire thing again).

          They say that for most of us, history begins when we are born.  My library experience tracks with that.  While growing up, many of my formative years were spent overseas. But I did go to small American schools, and the libraries we had provided enough books to keep the eyes moving.  In elementary school, I favored Hardy Boy mysteries and Frank Baum's series on the land of Oz (I self-identified with the scarecrow).  Later on, my high school was in London, so I spent less time in the library and more at the British Museum and the National Gallery.  Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves.  Then came college.

          In the 1960s the University of Florida was somewhat a Southern backwater, but the main library rocked.  It was a large brick edifice with a long reading room that had a huge vaulted ceiling framed by oak timbers. Rows of tables were adorned with art deco reading lamps; the walls sported arched windows and depression era murals.  If you so much as whispered, the librarians, former nuns, would bang your knuckles with wooden rulers. I spent a lot of time in the library. Trying to study in the dorm was akin to reading philosophy while participating in a roller derby.  The two didn't mix. At the library, I'd study for awhile, sleep with my eyes open, and then study some more.

          Back then there were real card catalogs, and all available knowledge was confined to physical books and magazines.  You had to brave the perverts in the stacks to track down the latest statistics on the gross national product of Peru.  However, it wasn't all drudgery. All work and no play makes Jack (or Jill) a dull boy (or person of gender).  One night in the library, while on hallucinogens, (what did YOU do in college?) I spent a couple of hours with a book of Canaletto's paintings, watching boats move up and down the canals of Venice. Better than the original Star Trek on TV. By the time I graduated they had microfilm readers and copy machines.  I thought heaven had come down to Earth.

          Fast forward to the 21st century.  Having spent countless "challenging" years in the classroom as a college writing teacher, I still tutor said students in a library learning center. And what a learning center it is. Computers with access to myriads of data bases,  most of them full text. Electronic connections to vast libraries all over the world. A dwindling collection of hard copy books.  Amazing word processing capabilities that have now made typewriters retro chic for the same folks that buy 33 1/3 records and own turntables. Card catalogs are something that only the knuckle draggers knew about. As for being quiet, the old lady librarians with their hair in buns and who could shush with the best of them are long gone. Now the rules are that you can happily chat away with your buds but don't use a cell phone in the library unless it is an emergency or your significant other wants you to bring home fish tacos for dinner.

          So as we move boldly forward into this more tech savvy and enlightened era, we don't need to fear the ignorance or volatility of the past. Right? Well, ISIS is burning Christian Bibles in the Middle East; the Chinese continue to destroy sacred Buddhist texts in Tibet and a protector of virtue in a small American town is about to consign Huckleberry Finn, Lolita and The Great Gatsby to some raging fire barrel.  But, hey, You can still go down to your local neighborhood library and check out The Complete Idiot's Guide to Hinduism by Linda Johnsen.  What a world!

                                                                       Robert Matte Jr.

Come A Ti Yi Yippee Yippee Yea

Along the Hollywood Trail

          "Your mother and I have decided to buy a television set."      

          This was sweet news to my six year old ears.  We were living in Arlington, Virginia and my father was stationed at the Pentagon. It was 1954, and televisions were finally affordable for the average American family.  When, a week later, Dad wheeled in a 21" Philco mahogany console model, I knew life was going to be glorious.  The omnipresent "idiot box" was now a staple of our suburban lives.

          My imagination had allowed me to picture the Lone Ranger and Tonto on the weekly half hour radio show, but now I could watch the TV version with Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels in glorious black and white. I wore my complete cowboy outfit and strapped on a pair of pearl handled revolvers as I sat in front of our new luminescent window to watch horse operas and attendant adventures. There was also Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rodgers and Gene Autry, but I was a masked man fan through and through.

          A lone stagecoach traverses western expanses. The 1939 version of Stagecoach was the first movie I remember watching on early television, with John Wayne, Claire Trevor and Thomas Mitchell. Wayne as "The Ringo Kid" epitomized the "good" outlaw who matches up well romantically with Trevor as the "soiled dove" who will gladly mend her ways.  Totally enthralled by the storyline and by the palette of craggy buttes, wide open spaces and big skies, I vowed that, one day, I too would travel west to dusty trails in search of great adventure.

          A few years later, my family lived at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where Army officers learned tactics and where black regiments, the "Buffalo Soldiers," were formed in 1866 to help control the American Indian tribes on the Western plains. 1960 was the height of cowboy shows dominating TV. The Rifleman, Bat Masterson, Maverick, Bonanza, Rawhide, a few of the many "oaters" that could be seen any night of the week. For the Saturday matinee, the Fort's dingy threadbare theater was showing The Magnificent Seven, one of the great films of the Western genre. Shot in Cinemascope with blazing color, the seven heroes ride to the rescue of a Mexican village besieged by scores of banditos. The soaring soundtrack rocked our little theater until a tornado warning was sounded, and we all headed to the theater's basement. After the all clear, we resumed our seats and cheered the final downfall of the bandit scourge. It was a great time to be a child.

          The rococo design of the historic Empire theater in Kansas City was a delight to behold. Its red velvet seats, fancy bric a brac and ornate sconces harkened back to the golden age of Hollywood movies. An important renovation had expanded the large screen to a three panel affair, ripe for the film fad that was Cinerama. 1963 brought the epic How the West Was Won. My father and I, immersed in male bonding, drove for two hours to see this paean to the glories of manifest destiny. With a formal intermission and an elaborate souvenir booklet, the experience fully lived up to its billing. John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck and Debbie Reynolds made this politically incorrect version of U.S. history go down easy.

          1969 and, while Woodstock was on the horizon, many in my ROTC unit prepared to be thrown into the maw of Vietnam.  College campuses were on fire.  Even our quiet Florida town was touched by "revolution." One of the few brief escapes for stressed out students was to be found in the dark environs of the local movie theater (with the constant smell of marijuana hanging in the air). Usual fare featured such foreign nuggets as Fellini's 8 1/2 or Bergman's The Seventh Seal, but this was the year of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch. While Paul Newman and Robert Redford joked their way across the American Southwest and through the interior of Bolivia, William Holden and crew soaked the screen in blood as they fought off Mexican Federales in a spectacularly doomed last stand. Both sets of outlaws were outside society's bounds, but you could imagine bringing Butch and Sundance home for dinner while The Wild Bunch crew could only remind you of some forlorn mountain firebase being overrun by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.

          My wife and I are finally escaping the East coast and heading out to "cowboy country." With everything crammed in a tiny U-Haul trailer, we are heeding Horace Greeley dictum to "Go West, young man!"  In 1973 we're a hundred years too late, but you take what you can get. We break down in Pecos, Texas, a god forsaken oil stain next to the interstate, but finally roll into the land of cactus and imposing mountain ranges.  Settled in at Tempe, Arizona, and tricked out in new cowboy duds, we take in the Apache Drive-in where a neon Geronimo endlessly climbs on and off of his painted pony. The movie is Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and listening through tinny speakers, we watch Billy, a too old Kris Kristofferson, terrorize Lincoln County, New Mexico before receiving his just desserts at the hands of Pat Garrett.  Screaming kids in the car next to us make the scene where Billy dies on a Mexican serape all the more poignant.

          The cowboy left behind, I now sport a frayed top hat and ruffled shirt as I read my poetry at coffee houses in Berkeley and San Francisco. On the radio I listen to Grace Slick wail away in the 1977 version of Jefferson Starship.  My marriage is on the rocks due to self-inflicted wounds by both parties. I attempt to apply salve to the situation by going alone to see Charles Bronson (Wild Bill Hickok) in a B western, The White Buffalo, at the Great Star Theatre in Frisco's Chinatown; golden dragons staring down at me from the balcony.  My fortune cookie says rough times ahead, and as a frenzied Bronson and Crazy Horse chase their mythical white buffalo, I know my empty life has had its own reality check.

          It's 1980 and Ronald Reagan is on the cusp of making it "morning in America."  I've braved rough waters, avoided the shoals and landed back in cactus land, Tucson, Arizona. Reclaiming my cowboy duds, a new woman in my life, we are off on our first date to the El Dorado Theatre. One of the last of the single screen theaters, this 725 seat jewel was the perfect place to start a potential relationship.  The movie is The Electric Horseman; Hanoi Jane (sorry, Jane Fonda) and Robert Redford are playing kissy face while trying to save wild horses in the vastness of Nevada and Utah. The contrived plot and popcorn are secondary to discovering if my lady friend and I can become significant others, but something must have worked since we are now at thirty-five years and counting.

          Early '85 and our first kiddo has just popped out. Too much trouble to go out to the movies, so I rent this new fangled VCR, plug it into a thirteen inch color TV and prepare to watch three tapes for a late night binge.  While the terminally exhausted wife snores softly next to me, I bond with Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good the Bad and the Ugly. There is so much spaghetti in the apartment that it is hard coming up for air.  During intermission I have to change poopy diapes and warm up a bottle, but somewhere out there, the Man with No Name is taking care of business.

          The narrow road to Tombstone runs through mesquite bosques,  palo verde trees and scrub brush. I have visited the small town several times, largely because it lacks that tacky tourist feel. The 1880s still hang in the air. Now, I want to see if the '93 film, Tombstone, does both the town and the legend justice. The theater is a narrow cracker box, one of those first generation multiplex monstrosities with lousy seats, no surround sound speakers, a cheap screen and noise that intrudes from the movie being shown in the cracker box next door. Fortunately, Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holiday are up to the task of showing that destiny and death are all too common companions. The OK Corral goes down with the requisite amount of bloodshed, and the lingering bad guys are eventually dispatched with  heartless revenge.  Just what is needed in the modern retelling of an iconic fable.

          The rain is drumming hard on the theater’s metal roof, and lightning strikes sound as if they're right on top of us.  Our young kids are loving it.  In the movie, after intense training, when Antonio Banderas is about to become the successor in The Mask of Zorro, the power goes out and we, the audience, are left in true darkness to contemplate the meaning of life. In a week I will be going down to Ft. Huachuca for my last roundup. 1998, and I have given Uncle Sam twenty-eight years of wearing the uniform. This Lieutenant Colonel will finally be riding off into the sunset; the third generation to serve at that dusty outpost.  The power returns; the film continues, and Anthony Hopkins, about to die, passes the Zorro mask to Banderas. In a few years my oldest son will also heed the call to the colors. Duty, honor, country ‑ the way to the straight and narrow.

          I take my teenage son to see Open Range, a 2003 throwback to the cattle drive films of the 40s and 50s. Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall battle saddle sores, rain storms and bad guys who want their beef. In the end, the big shootout in town uses up a lot of ammunition and leaves the cattle stealing reprobates full of holes.  The old theater we are in is to be bulldozed in one week to make way for a multi-store complex selling faux antique furniture, kids shoes and women's lingerie.  Ain't progress something.  Costner and Duvall have a drink, dust themselves off and get back to the open range as fast as possible.

          It's already the second decade of the 21st century; time flies when you're getting long in the tooth. We visit our Army son in Tampa and go to one of those new concept theaters with big lounge chairs and side tables where you can stuff your face and drink beer while the movie is playing.  The flick is Two Guns, a postmodern western set on the U.S./Mexican border. It's about the corruption of those employed by acronyms such as ICE, CIA, NCIS and ATF; your basic stew of testosterone fueled government agents. Denzel and Mark Wahlberg do the buddy movie thing as they screw the bad guys out of millions and millions. I decide to order the western bacon cheeseburger and ranch fries with a little Dos Equis to wash it down. Vaya con dios, muchacho.

          A refugee from the local twenty screen, over priced, stadium seating multiplex, I settle into my own home theater, a far cry from our 21 inch Philco of sixty years ago. Firing up the blu-ray player, I insert the DVD and prepare for drop dead surround sound with that woofer pumping out the bass. As I burrow into the Lazy Boy, the large LED screen comes alive, and a new version of an old tale begins to unfold, The Lone Ranger. Armie Hammer and a freakily attired Johnny Depp reprise the roles of the Masked Man and Tonto, thundering across the vast landscape as they promote truth and justice. At the climatic moment, the Lone Ranger does the Hi Ho Silver! stance, and once more it's a sleepy1954, the light from the flickering screen reflecting off two shiny six guns and a pearl buttoned shirt, my smile as big as the country itself.


                                                                                                      Robert Matte Jr.


A Story About a Colon


In the Land of the Knife Wielders

  churning-open space-no boundaries-beating beating beating- heart- sweat damp-spinning, "Panic!" beating- damp churning "Panic!" spinning "Panic Attaaack!"

Coming out of anesthesia I punch out the words through foggy bedlam.  My wife grips my clammy hand. A wraith in white approaches with a long syringe.

          The pictures of course are in color. Dr. Sasha Taleban, his shaved head gleaming under the fluorescent lights, points out a clump on my large intestine which looks like a fluffy cloud. "This is very interesting. We were discussing this in our last clinical meeting. I have not seen this formation before."

          I note the look of pleasure on the good doctor's face. He has not seen this before.  His manner is professional, but he also exudes a genuine warmth.  We are explorers together. My colon and his curiosity.  "It doesn't appear cancerous, but we should do a second colonoscopy with a biopsy of the tissue, just to be clear." Dr. Taleban slowly peers at me through his black rimmed glasses and reiterates, "I have not seen this before, so very interesting." Leaving the sterile white box that is his office, I have a certain unease about my condition, but am buoyed by the fact that my colon may be on the forefront of medical investigation.

           On my way home, a late summer monsoon drenches the car as wiper blades beat a furious wap wap wap. Dr. Taleban, not related to the Talaban who turned Afghanistan into a special version of hell, has just given me the results of the biopsy on my now famous colon. "I can tell you that there appears to be no cancer, but this interesting formation could be precancerous. We recommend surgery to take out the impacted area." Imagine several doctors, clad in their white coats and stethoscopes, sitting around a large conference table with slides of my colon being projected on a large screen.  "So Sasha, where did you find this patient. His colon should be presented in the Journal of Curious Gastroenterology." Do they simply want to cut into this bag of bones to turn me into a white paper to present at their next convention?

           Dr. Valentine Nfonsam, surgeon extraordinaire, is impeccably dressed in a gray stripe suit, tailored shirt and powder blue tie. He also has a shaved head. Is this a requirement in the Gastroenterology Dept? We are in his softly lit office to discuss my colon. I feel underdressed in jeans and a washed out cowboy shirt.

          "I have looked at the photos.  The area in question is very interesting. It is not a large area, but I recommend surgery. I have consulted with Dr. Taleban. You may never develop cancer here, but then again you might. It is an important decision."

          Dr. Nfonsam's lilting voice draws me in. He speaks precisely which mirrors his strong fashion sense.  His Central African roots inform the correctness of his carriage. This is a guy I can do business with.  I fool with the pearl buttons on my shirt.

          "Well, doctor, can you wear that suit when you operate?" I didn't say this, but I hope he looked as good in the operating room as he did in his office. I also hope he knows how to handle a knife.

          "We can schedule you for next Friday. My assistant will give you the particulars.          Any questions?"  I want to ask the odds of bleeding out. Whether I will have to eat gruel for the rest of my life. Can I get a DVD of the operation? Instead, my response is more mundane.

          "The only operation I've ever had was on my tonsils when I was seven.  How long is the operation and how long is the recovery?"

          Sensing a hint of desperation in my voice, Doctor N. attempts to put me at ease. "I sometimes do three of these operations a day without taking lunch.  You should be fine."

           Predawn, sitting in the sparse surgical waiting room, the countdown has begun. I have left my youth in the rear view mirror of the 50s and early 60s.  With me I have clean underwear, a toothbrush, and a paperback about alien abductions.  I wonder what kind of operations they do on the mother ship.  My wife is reading Psalms in her Bible. I've told her to stay away from the 23rd. In a couple of hours I will be comfortably laid out on a stainless steel table with an anesthesia mask over my face and Doctor N about to expose my guts to curious onlookers.  This is a teaching hospital, so first year residents, all tricked out in pale blue gowns and surgical masks, will undoubtedly be taking turns poking around on my insides. "Look at that colon, ladies and gentlemen; you may not see one as interesting as this for some time.  We will remove the affected section and preserve it for years of intensive study. Who would like to make the first incision?"

churning-open space-no boundaries-beating beating beating- heart- sweat damp-spinning,"Panic!" beating- damp churning "Panic!" spinning "Panic Attaaack!"

Coming out of anesthesia I punch out the words through foggy bedlam.  My wife grips my clammy hand. A wraith in white approaches with a long syringe.

          I wake up again in my new home away from home. The disorientating panic attack I experienced earlier is apparently not unusual for folks administered that particular anesthesia. Nice to know, guys.  My life is now defined by a sickly green 10' x 20' room which consists of a huge hospital bed, adjustable side table, retro wall mounted TV and a corner nook with a stained vinyl loveseat and a small window that indicates a world out there somewhere. I also have a small bathroom with enough stainless steel security rails to outfit a battleship.

          This space is for one occupant, me, so I don't have to share with a roomy who wants to watch I Love Lucy reruns and has an extended family that visits constantly, telling stories about Uncle Homer's lung operation back in the old days.  I am alone most of the time; out of circulation, dependent on others to make me whole again.

          They have me hooked up to an iv drip line so I don't get too dehydrated. A needle is also jammed into my left hand, attached to pain medication. I push what looks like a detonator button when I want to shoot the juice into my hand so that it will coarse through my veins, providing temporary relief from my clear discomfort. Why is there discomfort? Well, along with a chopped up colon - a long incision scar and staples make my stomach look like tracks laid for the continental railroad.

          The first night in my room leaves something to be desired. This is not summer camp. No soothing cricket sounds here. I am hooked up to clicking machines, and must endure the incessant noise created by call buttons in other rooms.  Every couple of hours some shadowy figure is waking me up to take my vitals. Too weak, tired and tethered to get up during the night, I have been given a plastic jug to pee in.  If I was a long distance trucker I would chuck it out the cab window, but the window in my room is hermetically sealed. so the nurses or patient care technicians (PCTs) will just have to deal with it.

          I figured operation on Friday - home Saturday afternoon.  How big a deal could it be? Dr. Nfonsam does rounds Saturday morning, closely trailed by his resident doctors and a couple of medical students. He is wearing a long white coat that is so starched, it could walk on its own.  Underneath he is wearing a stylish blue suit and a paisley silk tie that must have set him back some serious dinero.

          “How are you feeling today?”

          “Like my insides have been through a Waring blender.”

          “That is normal, one day after the operation.”

          “When do I go home?”

          “You must first pass gas and hopefully have a bowel movement. That can take two or three more days.”

          “When do I get to eat and drink?”

          “Maybe tomorrow you can have water and some pudding. First, your colon must wake up. It has just been through a lot.”

          "How much did you cut out? A couple of inches?

          "No, more like a foot. We wanted to make sure we got all of the questionable area." The residents all nod in unison. "Don't worry, your intestines are still very long."

          The residents hang on Dr. Ns every word as if he is God.  They look at me with sympathy as they imagine the big steak they are going to have tonight. All I get to do is suck on a wet sponge on a stick for the next couple of days. As they move on to the next patient, the last resident, a slight woman in her late twenties, says, "You do have a very interesting colon."

          They want me walking as much as possible. Twice a day I do ten laps around the nursing hub which looks out on a horseshoe of patient rooms. Eschewing the drafty hospital gown, I am dressed in blue and green plaid pajama bottoms (MacDonald clan?) and a rust colored tee shirt that says, Roswell - The International UFO Museum. I am indeed a stranger in a strange land. 

          As I make my circuit, gripping the wheeled stand that holds my iv bag, I pass the rooms of fellow surgical travelers who are about to go on living or go on dying in their sanitized cocoons. As I complete the tenth lap, the announcer is barely able to contain himself. "LADIES and GENTLEMEN, a NEW world record in the Senior Olympics. Ten laps in 8 minutes and 43 seconds!" Those in the nursing station applaud loudly as I triumphantly return to my room.

          The nurses and PCTs have been as attentive as is possible in an environment where they are always stretched thin. I write their names down. When this is all over, I plan to drop off gift cards for a local sandwich shop. Food is a welcome palliative when caring for demanding patients. Dan, one of the PCTs, is particularly friendly and at ease with himself.  He is going to the university and wants to become an orthopedic surgeon and is willing to empty jugs of pee and take temperatures at 3 am if it will get him closer to his goal.

          While most of the nurses are more than competent, I run into a young charge nurse named Andrea whose haughty mannerisms are better suited to the queen of the hop. She looks right through me without connecting and fails badly at trying to insert an iv line. "Well, I don't know why this didn't work.  You must have bad veins." She and I are rescued by an old hand from another floor who has been easily accessing patients' veins for the last forty years.

          During the day, I have the requisite number of visitors. My brother in law brings me donuts I can’t eat, my pastor brings me the Word of God and my wife brings me the comfort found in thirty-five years of marriage.

          “The dog threw up in the flowers again.  She really misses you. And the plumber said it may take him two days to find the leak.  The tailor called and your pants are ready.”

          My wife is also employed by this same hospital, in the lab that will biopsy the one foot section of colon that they just cut out. How odd that a recent part of me may only be a few feet away from her work area. 

          The third evening I wake up with night terrors. Where am I? How did I get here?  What year is it? Why is my mother scolding me for wearing dirty underwear? I finally start to calm down and buzz for a nurse. They are allowing me to drink water, and I want a biiiig glass. I feel detached from the world; trapped in a moment where I am just a faceless name on a hanging clipboard.

          Eureka! About seven a.m. I have my first explosive release of gas and it certainly isn't SBD (silent but deadly).  I am so excited, that I have the nurse record the episode immediately. Kind of like discovering the big geyser at Yellowstone. This may be my ticket out of here. I am iv free and taking pain meds orally.  Where are my clothes?

          Dr. N. and his minions show up later that morning.  This time he is wearing A cranberry suit with a cream shirt and gold tie. The man knows how to make an impression.

          "We have been told you passed gas this morning?"

          "Yes, sir. I certainly did."  I imagine Dr. N and the minions sitting around a large conference table as the incredible news was brought to them by special messenger earlier in the day.

          "This is an important sign. Also, I am pleased to say that your biopsy was negative. Very good news for such an interesting colon." The minions beam in agreement.

          "So, do I get to go home?"

          "Plan on tomorrow morning. But you will not be fully recovered for some weeks. Do not stretch or lift heavy objects. You should move carefully."

          Should I tell him that the heaviest thing I've lifted in the last six months is a 12 pack of Diet Coke? That my roller skates have been gathering dust since my kids were little at the Roller Rink?

          "We will continue monitoring you today. Hopefully you will now have a bowel movement. You also are allowed to eat solid food." Great! Maybe I can order out and Col. Sanders himself will show up with a big bucket of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and calorie killing gravy.

          "We will see you in three weeks for a follow up."

          "Thank you doctor, and also your staff." (Will they also be at the follow up???)

          I never thought runny eggs, limp bacon and burnt toast could taste so good.  The hospital kitchen has done themselves proud. My first meal in days. To top it off, I tightly grip the handrail in the mini bathroom as my first "poop" fires out as a calcified cannon ball.

          Soon, I will reenter the world, completing a successful mission that navigated the dark side of fear and the light side of medical competence. On the last morning, I am at the end of a conversation with Joaquin, a forty something political refugee from El Salvador's civil war, who works for housekeeping: cleaning toilets and sinks, emptying trash, changing linen and mopping floors.

          "Well, look, thank you for what you do for us in the hospital."

          "It is a way to serve others, like I did in my small bodega in El Salvador. My country's name means The Savior. But it is this country, America, that has saved my family.

          "I am glad you are here."

          "My son. Manuel, has been treated at this hospital. He wants to become a doctor."

          "That is a good dream. Don't let him give it up.

          Later, with my wife's help, I pack up some final items. This room will soon host another adventurer.  I pray that Manuel will be a good doctor, that someday, he will find "a very interesting colon."


                                                                       Robert Matte Jr.