Aren’t you a little old for this sort of thing?
But really – you’re on Social Security, aren’t you?
Yeah, and Medicare. Remember what Richard Pryor said? “You don’t get old bein’ no fool.”
Aren’t you a little old for this sort of thing?
But really – you’re on Social Security, aren’t you?
Yeah, and Medicare. Remember what Richard Pryor said? “You don’t get old bein’ no fool.”
May 06, 2014
In this condensed excerpt (the last part of a long story called “I Don’t Kill People Anymore”) the leader Mesiamo talks about violence with Elliot, who has just had news of the My Lai massacre, and is upset. Elliot tells Mesiamo about it. Mesiamo’s been meaning to put a little fear into Elliot, because he’s not certain that Elliot isn’t connected with the miners up in the mountains. He wants Elliot to believe that if Elliot betrays the Nagovisi, Mesiamo will kill him – something Mesiamo has no intention of doing. He’s already told the reader, “These days, you can’t kill somebody just because it seems a good idea.” But as Mesiamo begins to understand more about My Lai, and why Elliot’s so upset, he sees a different strategy: to compare the American large-scale atrocity with Nagovisi small-scale killings. Mesiamo’s narrating. He likes to call Elliot “White Man.”
I went to Vermont to help my friend burn down a barn that belonged to somebody else. This was in the sixties when Gracie Slick was singing about doing things that haven’t got a name yet. Burning a barn had a name but I hadn’t done it yet.
When Ed McClanahan showed up on TNB back in 2010 I was blown away. Showing up, without warning, on my turf? Amazing. Mostly I’ve turned up on his turf. We’ll set aside the question of whose turf TNB is, but you know what I mean.
So here’s a little illustrated essay about how Ed and I converged. “Oh,” you say, “I didn’t know you had a string of books and were a Living Treasure of Kentucky and knew famous people,” and I say, “I don’t. This is about how we look.”
In 1956, Ed looked like this:
And I looked like this.
There’s some serious convergence coming. But it’s going to take a few years.
In 1962 I looked like this.
And in 1965 Ed looked like this:
…but the Ed described in this TNB piece probably looked a lot more like the 1963 me.
I don’t think he had a feather headband, but he had more magic substances available than I did.
So in 1963 I signed up for Creative Writing and Ed was the instructor. Probably we all called him “Professor,” because it was the old days and we were polite even to young instructors. On the first day of class a student asked about grading and Ed said, “I’ll read your stories and have a mystical experience and your grade will come to me.” Or something like that.
Little did I know he meant it. It was a life-changing experience for me (the course, not the grading procedure) and although I didn’t set myself on a fiction writing path until many years later, I never forgot Ed or that course.
A friend of mine never did either. He emailed me a couple of months ago after reading something of mine on TNB and said, “Do you remember taking “Creative Writing” from that really weird prof at Stanford? We made up the most outrageous horrible drivel imaginable, and it was the only course where I got an A+.”
Hey, if Ed’s mystical experience offered up an A+, it couldn’t have been drivel. I think I got an A myself, but I can’t remember. I do remember going over to the famous Perry Lane to hand in a story, and I do remember running into Ken Kesey at San Gregorio beach. I was too shy to say anything.
I don’t think Ed introduced me to a crunchy bowl of Heavenly Blues, but he might have. I don’t know who else it could have been.
In those days it wasn’t common for undergraduates to hang out with their instructors, but that didn’t matter to Ed and me and then, a few months later, to Ed and me and Ruth, whom I’d met in my next (and last) creative writing course. We were seniors so it was OK.
The summer spent with Ruth in the Portola Valley we went over to see Ed and his then-wife Kit often. I had acquired a wolf cub, perhaps the most foolish of all the foolish things I did in those days, and it was famous in the McClanahan household for having nipped Ed’s daughter. It really was a nip, but since we were all fiction writers or would-be fiction writers the nip was escalated to a “bite” and probably over the years into a frightening encounter with a bad-tempered carnivore from which she was lucky to have escaped with her limbs intact. Probably it’s been passed along to grandchildren by now.
Ruth (playing with the wolf) was always going to get a little fiction coaching from Ed, but she never did. I found a letter she wrote me before I dropped out of her life.
I went off East and Ed and Ruth stayed West. I came back in 1965 to find Ed looking as I’ve shown you above. Next stop, 1972. I was launched on my career as an anthropologist. Ed was in Kentucky and I was in Papua New Guinea, and I didn’t know where Ruth was.
Here’s a letter that made its way to me in the village. Kit was usually the letter-writer.
“The child whose foot your wolf bit (ah memories!) is now in 4th grade. Ed published an article on the Grateful Dead in Feb ’72 Playboy, which won an award for the best piece of non fiction by a new contributor. A dubious honor, even in the aftermath of women’s lib. But we have been poor. Ky is a very primitive state. Come visit us here. We do want a copy of Gardening for Money. Ed has several books in the making . . . still writes the novel.”
I didn’t start looking for Ed again until 1995, a few years after I started writing again. But before that, we’d better have a look at what we looked like in 1983.
That was before Google, and Ed didn’t have have his own website. I knew that Wendell Berry had dedicated a poem to Ed, and I managed to get his address. I couldn’t be certain that Ed would remember me, so so of course I tossed in the bit about the wolf. He couldn’t have forgotten his daughter’s near-death experience.
Berry’s handwriting might not be legible. “Dear Ed – If you wish to be found, here is a fellow applying for the job.”
And thus to seminal year 2004, when not only did I find Ruth but went to see Ed in Kentucky.
Convergence. Surprise! We both got old. He kept his hair, but I’d say we look a lot more alike than we did in 1956. My friend Ed’s written many more books than I have — and you’re missing out if you don’t read them. I’m going to send him my novel manuscript, and the old guy’s mystical experience had better be a good one. I’m expecting him to deliver an agent and publisher instead of an A.
I went out to the garage where I had some metal Diebold bank cabinets that I bought years ago at a surplus furniture place on Main Street in Buffalo. They’d followed me around from house to house.
My marriage had disintegrated. I’d moved and was setting up my new place. What I was looking for in the Diebold cabinets was a Porsche Carrera badge that I thought might be in an old plastic bag I used to store mementos from the sixties. The badge was brass script and had two sharp prongs that had attached it to the Porsche. I was thinking I’d tap it into the drywall behind my desk, under a thick Sacred Heart of Jesus Auto League membership card I’d already stuck up with double-sided tape.
The bag had been in one of the drawers for years, sliding back and forth as I rooted around looking for small tools. It was torn and cloudy and when I grabbed it my wisdom teeth, extracted in 1964, fell out, and so did a scratched stainless-steel Glenn R. Martin Company promotional Zippo lighter. What it was promoting was the SM-68 Titan I intercontinental ballistic missile, an image of which was nicely engraved on it.
My girlfriend Karen gave it to me in 1961, and I remembered asking her who, exactly, was supposed to be influenced by the Zippo. Was it to attract buyers in need of an ICBM, perhaps to threaten annoying neighbors or launch at a distant government they didn’t like? Or was it meant to steer buyers away from the SM-65 Atlas missile? Did she know if there was an Atlas Zippo, or had General Dynamics used Ronson for their lighter promotions? Ronson made military flame throwers, so it was possible. She thought my questions were amusing, but this was before the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Karen returned from Christmas break with news of the latest weapons development, a Death Ray. Her father, source of the Titan Zippo, told her about it in confidence. It used a special kind of light, and it vaporized whatever you pointed it at. Even without Death Ray lighter to back it up, I believed her.
The missing Carrera badge came from a Porsche wrecked near Carpinteria, California in late summer, 1961. I was working for an avocado rancher who was the father of a kid I knew from the freshman dorm, Tom. My family didn’t have enough money to bring me home from college, so I drove down to Carpinteria with Tom.
That summer I had a hillside to myself, me and the ditch-digging tools and piles of plastic pipe. I dug trenches for the irrigation system and laid pipes in them. On the hillside I encountered rattlesnakes and a tarantula. In fear I killed them with my shovel, and was ashamed of myself.
In the middle of the summer Karen came out from Colorado, and I took her to the hill and showed her the work I had done, and made love to her there. Afterwards I lit our cigarettes with the Titan Zippo.
One day after work Tom’s father said, “Boys, come with me,” and he drove us in his pickup truck over to the California Highway Patrol substation. He took us around the back and there was a crumpled Porsche Carrera, and he said, “Look inside,” and we did, and there was blood everywhere.
“Boys,” he said, “Two people got killed in this car last night on 101, took that curve too fast and now they are dead. And I want you boys to remember this because it’s one thing to see a wrecked car on TV, but it’s another thing to see it up close, and that’s real blood there, two people, a man and his girlfriend, they died. Now you see it. Don’t forget it.”
Later when we were hanging out at the A&W Root Beer, the kids were saying that when they opened up the girl’s mouth the guy’s dick was in it. That obscenity might have pulled me away from what was important, except I had the script Carrera in my pocket and its mounting prongs were poking into my thigh. That kept me focused on the simple true thing I’d understood: there are boundaries you don’t know exist, and if you push past them you can die.
I won’t claim I wasn’t titillated by the blow-job-of-death, but even at seventeen I understood that was not what I needed to remember.
Standing at the Diebold, the script Carrera lost, it came to me that in my new life, my aides-memoire would be the Titan Zippo, simulacrum of a deadly weapon never launched, my wisdom teeth, then wise in name only, and the razor-edged broadhead arrow point I had forgotten was in the bag – it, too, from that hot Carpinteria summer, when, after the digging and laying out, I took my bow and went among the scrub oaks after deer, killing in the old way my father taught me before Karen and the Titan. Before the death ray. Before the Carrera.
The hard things happened at night, sometimes in the dark, sometimes lit by a yellowish bed lamp, or the light from another room.
But right now she’s telling me about blue light, because one time the light seemed bluish, but how could that have been? Light isn’t actually bluish, is it? she says, It’s yellow, really. Maybe she’s thinking blue because she remembers blue flames.
So probably it wasn’t blue light, but more an infusion of blueness, a perception, from the blue flames she could see in the space heater, which she can see into because she’s on the floor in the kitchen, she’s sure of that, well pretty sure, at least the blue flames imply that’s where it was, because that’s where the space heater is. Or was. Is, who knows anymore?
I’m kinda losing it, she says to me, I mean, um, time. I don’t know when it is right now, I mean, when I am, but it’s blue then, it’s blue and it hurts, you know, they’re hurting me. One’s sitting over me like you just did, ah, you didn’t mean anything and how could I know this was gonna happen? But you did and now.
This. Blue. Shit.
She looks at me in the room, not my kitchen but my bedroom, we’re on the bed, and I know she wants to give me her blue light, so it can become mine. So I can feel it with her, or see it. So I can be on that kitchen floor, if that’s what it was, or when.
So I can go there. Me, the guy who semester after semester tells innocent freshman, The spectacular evolutionary advance of even an early language is that it permits shared consciousness. You can invite me into what you know and take me places I’ve never been. And show me what’s there.
Ah but now we’re not talking flint, chert, obsidian, chokecherries, blueberries, hackberries, carrion, fresh-kill, glacial light, mesa light, storm light. We’re talking blue light.
I know she’s going to take me, the me who’s sitting on the bed looking at her, she’s taking me back where the blue flames were, no, are, were, it doesn’t even matter, and I see in her eyes I’m no longer the me I know, but some other me she knows or doesn’t know for sure.
She’s transformed me into that person, too, and for a moment I think, Well allright, maybe this can help her work it out, yes, maybe symbol of, or standing in for so she can get ontop of it, but then I think if she takes me there, if I go along, how will she tell it? Through whose eyes will I witness it? Please, hers. Not the guy’s.
Tell me what you see.
It’s dim, but when I turn my head I see blue. One is my father (she never says Daddy, Dad, Pa, Pop, only My father, only he, his, him, not before this night, and will not after it) but I can’t see the other one, too close, I couldn’t move my head, he’s sitting on my chest, he broke my collarbone, I don’t know who it is.
Only pain, his knee, choking, blue.
In 1931, Salvador Dali painted “The Persistence of Memory.”
The link between Dali’s picture and Stefan’s advice isn’t only that I sometimes felt like the monstrous form Dali dropped in the middle of his composition, or that as I became exhausted my watch melted and drooped. It has to do with persistence.
When I’m walking or running easily the thoughts I think usually stick around until I’m done, even if they weren’t very useful thoughts. But if I’m pushing, they drop away from me as surely as my lactic acid level and heart rate rise. So I can tell you that I planned this piece many times while running. Some of those plans might have been pretty good. I remember being pleased with them, but that’s all. The one I thought of this afternoon’s going to be the one, which is a pity. Or maybe not. Maybe those other ones were nothing more than the endorphins talking.
In Hilo (Hawai’i) I have a 10-mile loop that I run once on Tuesday, twice on Sunday. It gains about 1200’ elevation, which means a long grind uphill (leaving me short on endorphins), but it also loses that 1200’ – which can mean an exhilarating descent.
Here are the streets I run on: Wailuku Drive, Waiau Street, Waianuenue Avenue, Puuhina Street, Kaumana Drive, Akolea Road, Waianuenue Avenue, Peepee Falls Road, Wailuku Drive.
Here are the dogs: a yapper near the Hilo Door of Faith Church, a deep-voiced one farther up Kaumana Drive in an unfenced yard, a couple more little ones, the parrot that barks like a dog (near Chong St), and then on Upper Kaumana eight or ten big mean looking bastards in fenced yards. I look at each gate to make sure it’s not open. One nice little one, though, and then the laid-back guy at Peepee Falls Rd, who only barks when I’m walking.
Here are the landmarks: about half a mile out, the new version of the First Foreign Church, just beyond there is where C almost lost control of the Bad Ass Pink Chevy, scaring the crap out of us both, and about a mile out, the hospital where my mother and father both died. Then it’s on downhill to Rainbow Falls, where a falling rock put a scar on me I still carry, a couple of tenths farther to the ex-Hilo Memorial Hospital (where I was born, and had my appendix out, another scar). It’s now a Hawaii County Annex, housing Adult Care, which on my second loop always seem appropriate. It’s where we took bodies after the 1960 tsunami. That’s the end of the first downhill.
Then it’s uphill 4.7 miles. Turn and go past the guy who was nailing hubcaps on his garage in the late fifties, and still is, and on past the Kaumana Fire House, the Crossing Guard lady (always good for a friendly hello) the Door of Faith Church (for sale) the tsunami warning siren (3 miles), Crivello’s Malasadas and Smoked Meats (best malasadas and bean soup on the Big Island), up and up past the nicely-restored Ford Ranchero, the place where somebody spilled a lot of paint on the road, the dangerous blind corner at Akala Rd, the green condom,
Kaumana Cave, the First Abandoned Sofa, the Abandoned Projection TV, the dead mongoose, the Second Abandoned Sofa (6 mile point, the peak, where I turn around), the wooden bridge on Akolea Road, the place where, in 1959, Jimmy Watt laid 180 feet of rubber with his father’s Oldsmobile 98, and – getting close to home – the old Excelsior Dairy (where the most beautiful girl at Hilo High held court), Boiling Pots (where most years somebody misjudges the Wailuku River and drowns), down the hill past the old Goo place, and finally home.
I like that loop because it takes me through much of my Hilo life (and my TNB life as well). The uphill is tough but the Second Abandoned Sofa’s waiting for me, and if it’s Sunday, then there’s Gatorade behind the highest boulder in the Kaumana Caves parking area (just past the green condom) and there’s water in the Abandoned Projection TV.
Of all the landmarks I’m most fond of Green Condom, unless I’m very tired and then Second Abandoned Sofa is my friend.
Let me tell you about that green condom. It was on the shoulder the first time I ran up Kaumana Drive, in January 2011, and it was on the shoulder the next to the last time I ran up Kaumana Drive, in late April 2011. I’ve always wondered about an erection lasting more than four hours, but how about a condom that didn’t move for nearly four months? Rain. A couple of small earthquakes. A guy running. No nosing dog? No offended person kicking? Nothing moved that sucker.
Every Tuesday and every Sunday I’d clear the Ranchero, watch my step on the bad shoulder near the spilled paint, and ease around the blind corner wondering if it would still be there. It always was.
Back in the fifties when we boys rode our bikes on Akolea Road (in those days it was called the Burma Road) we would see condoms. The Burma Road was a favorite parking place. It wasn’t paved then and there were almost no houses. Certainly we felt stirrings when we saw condoms, because we knew what rubbers were even though none of us had yet put one to its intended use. In 2011 I wasn’t consumed by sexual stirrings along Akolea Road, although I did have some memories – C and I made out there many times. But at nearly 68 I was usually too tired (9 miles down on the one-loop days, and 18 on the two-loop days). I hate admitting that, but it’s true.
So, the green condom. The first few times I ran by it I did have those boyish thoughts – well, actually adult boyish thoughts.
Did somebody keep it as a memento mori of the little death and then toss it out the window after pulling out of the lot and heading back down to Hilo? I wondered how it got where it was. The parking lot, where it must have been put to use, was a good hundred yards uphill. I couldn’t see a guy behind the wheel slinging it past his girlfriend and out the passenger side window. Maybe it slid from a pickup bed. Maybe the action was in the bushes and no car was involved. Playing the odds, I assumed heterosexual used-condom slinging. Ugh.
These questions kept me busy for a week, maybe two. Green condom, road, parking lot, sex, what happened here?
But by the third week that rubber had lost any sexual significance and become the raiser-of-different questions.
Why are there green condoms? Who buys them? Are there “rainbow packs,” just as with 3.5” floppies (speaking of the past)? Might Dali have had a green condom in mind when he painted the hanging watch? Did the rain wash it to where I found it – and why no farther? What, exactly, fastened it to the road and immobilized it? Why hadn’t it faded? Could DNA still be recovered from it?
By the fourth week it was simply a landmark, cataloged and stored away. If I was tired and felt like walking (not a rare event, with 1200 feet to climb) I’d say, “Shit, I gotta walk, but only from the Dangerous Blind Curve at Akala Road (4 miles from my house) to the Green Condom (4.1 miles from my house),” or I might say “Suck it up, no stopping until the Green Condom,” or – if I was feeling good – I might say “At the Green Condom, pick it up and hold it to Nice Little Dog,” but if it was going badly (for example, on the second loop on a hot day when the rats had gotten to my Gatorade behind the Highest Boulder because I hadn’t screwed the cap on properly), I might say, “Shit, I’ve had it, so I’ll walk to the Abandoned Projection TV and hope nobody stole the bottle of water I put there, and then maybe I can run home from there without collapsing, but at least if I do collapse I have my ID bracelet or somebody could take my GPS watch and use the backtrack facility and figure out where I came from, so they’ll know where to send Ruth my body, except if I make it to Akolea Road and the woman with the cockatoo is walking her goat I might get some water.”
Generally I didn’t think those thoughts as long run-on more or less grammatical sentences. No, it was more like, “Go Green Condom!” or “Rats! Shit! Maybe water! TV!” or “Downhill, hot, Goat Lady, maybe OK, maybe die.” Like that.
Thus the Green Condom’s transformation. By the time it disappeared I was in much better shape than when I first saw it, and it was in worse shape. I didn’t make its portrait until the end of March, so I can’t show it to you in the flush of its smooth, plump youth.
I was saddened by its loss. It had been a good and true friend. Always there for me. First and Second Abandoned Couches and Abandoned Projection TV were also friends. Dead Mongoose lasted more than a month. I thought something would eat it, but no. I have not spoken of Abandoned Engine Block and its companion Abandoned Cylinder Head, newcomers who appeared in February, just below Second Couch, but above Dead Mongoose. To my surprise Engine Block didn’t yield up its oil for a couple of days, perhaps retaining it in some wretched hope it might turn over again. I had to run through it carefully until it soaked into the asphalt.
My friends the Abandoned Ones at the top of Kaumana Drive spoke to me of utility beyond breakage and abandonment, as did the condom (which, I hope, broke only after use).
Just as it took a few weeks for me to stop thinking about what the Green Condom had been used for and how it had come to be where it was, and to turn it into my landmark, it took me a few weeks to go in the opposite direction with the Abandoned Ones at the top.
At first I thought they were cool. Turn around at the Second Abandoned Sofa, exactly 6 miles out. What a thing! I wrote Stefan an email about it. But then when Block and Head appeared, and the oil spilled out, it didn’t seem so cool.
Yeah, landmarks. Sure. Landmarks that meant the rest of my run was cake, almost all downhill home. But shit, I’d say, people dumped their crap at the mauka end of Kaumana Drive for what? Not to make landmarks for me.
Was it to save a trip to the dump? Lazy bastards. A little work with a heavy hammer or a crowbar and all of the Abandoned could have been dumped for free. Then my knee started bothering me and then it was time to go to the Mainland. Sorry, the Continent.
But I’ll be running up Kaumana Drive again in a few weeks.
I don’t think my landmarks will settle back into being landmarks again, because now that I’ve written about them I won’t be able to flush them out like lactic acid.
I think I’d better heave Block and Head into the Toyota and take them to the metal dump. Maybe stink maile and grass will eat up the sofas. Hilo rain will melt Projection TV’s particleboard case. And I’d say the odds favor a new condom at Kaumana Caves. I can only hope for a mightily persistent one. Blue, I think. I like blue.
This piece is in memory of my mother, Neva Mitchell, who died on May 4th, 2003, just days short of what would have been the 98th Mother’s Day of her life. If you’re not familiar with the Saint-Saens Third (“Organ”) Symphony, you might want to play this short audio clip before reading on.
When this woman and I moved into the new place and we each started unpacking our things I was surprised to see a pink boombox, not decorator pink but little-girl pink and I said, What the hell is that?
She said, What does it look like? It’s a boombox. I got it at a garage sale and it works.
I said, Well I have audiophile grade equipment for us to play music with.
She said, Do you have a boombox?
Well no I don’t.
Well now you do. You can use it if you want.
And I thought, Well what’s next here? Maybe a Hello Kitty television?
I was wanting to make a video and thinking about the boombox. I was thinking about how back in the sixties the composer and performance artist Nam June Paik had this woman named Charlotte Moorman play one of his cello pieces topless and another time she played with small televisions attached to her breasts but I don’t remember what they were showing.
I wanted to take the pink boombox to a church where this big woman I knew was the organist and put it next to her on the organ console. She would be naked. I had in mind some muscular music well-suited to a collaboration between a large breasted woman and a pink boom box. I knew she wouldn’t take off her clothes for me but this was a conceptual video so it didn’t matter.
The pink boombox would be playing a tape of the Saint-Saens 3rd Symphony. This is the one where at the exact beginning of the last movement the organ enters suddenly with a hugely loud chord which appears out of nowhere if you don’t know it’s coming. It repeats twice and then after some piano four hands work there’s a massive stride through nine chords that to my ear have to be played more slowly than they often are, because they are stately and commanding.
In my video the pink boombox plays the end of the third movement just before the organ’s entrance and it’s turned up and the sound is distorted because it’s a pink boombox not an audiophile grade system. The naked organist listens and shifts around so we can see those large breasts and viewers who don’t know the symphony will be going What the hell? and those who do will be going Oh my God and then after the silence she enters with her real organ. The boombox plays the parts in between the great strides.
In my video dream this would go on for a while and I could not decide how to end it. I imagined that I could convince some of my friends in the Philharmonic to help me out. The camera would be in the organ loft and it would pan over the players filtering into the pews below with their instruments and slowly taking over from the boom box. I thought it really didn’t matter that I couldn’t end it, because my chances of making that video were no better than the chances that the pink boombox woman and I would last as a couple.
When I was little we did not hide our bodies so I was used to seeing my mother naked but I had not been living with her for many years before she started dying. She was driedup as ancient people are but when I went to the hospital I walked into her room while the nurse was bathing her and I was stunned to see that although every other part of her was wrinkled and slack her breasts were smooth and full and I thought This must be a sign she can still nourish me even though she cannot speak from her stroke and is dying. And I carried that thought with me when I had to leave her in the hospital and go far away.
I was driving to Pittsburgh a few days after my mother died and I was dealing with it in my own way which was to wear her drivers license around my neck on a chain because I had taken her license away from her when she was 92 and it was no longer safe for her to drive.
I was driving to Pittsburgh and had not yet let out my grief and I was driving along and flipped the radio in my van to the Pittsburgh public radio station QED 89.3 and when I hit the frequency there was silence so I turned it way up in case I had turned it down by accident.
But it was the silence between movements and out of nowhere came the monster organ chord of the Saint-Saens Third, right there, no lead-in. It was like a hammer blow like somebody punched me in the chest and I bellowed out a giant sob even before the first chord died away and started to cry louder than I ever cried in my life. And when the orchestra played and the organ was silent I stopped too but I knew what was coming: two more times that massive chord and then four times the nine great strides.
Two great blows they sounded to me, then the orchestra gave me time to gather myself and when the first nine strides came I yelled Your mo-ther is dead her breasts and all and I cannot say why I did not yell My mo-ther is dead her breasts and all except maybe I needed to be told because I was not there when she died.
A figure-eight race in Islip, the track a giant dirt lemniscate. Spectators hanging over the rails or hopping drunk in the bleachers, all fixed on the intersection, where the action was. Braking or accelerating each driver made his decision, some sailing through heedless. The best strategy was opaque to me. In the end, the last junker colliding with not-much won.
In Islip I hungered for meaning the world might offer up unasked. I ran the race by my list of might-means, of portents, of lessons-that-could-be-learned. But I found no non-trivial matches. I never went back.
Forty-seven years ago Ruth and I biked down from the Valley on a little dirt road she knew, climbed the linear accelerator’s fence. I boosted her up. She gave me her hand. We teetered on the top, laughing, leapt together in grace, nailing our landing.
The accelerator’s backbone lined a pale mile each way, the straightest tube that ever was, laid out by a new light called laser. In the tunnel beneath us night-shift students rode their bikes, tended magnets, miles of cable, the particle-charged tube.
And we on the dirt roof dancing. Speed of light, I said, Atoms, she said, Moonshine too.
I kissed her, put my cheek on hers, released, spun her, pulled her to me. Below us giant magnets pumped a figured bass, infrasonic drone for our mingling cries.
Pedaling home she said, It’s so like men, smashing things to see how the world is made.
I said, How else can you learn what’s inside?
Then, as photons streaming into a beam splitter, we launched ourselves down different paths.
Forty years later, not far from Islip, Brookhaven smashers boosted gold nuclei to nearly light-speed. Opposing gold accelerated round, equally fast, then, finally magnet-bent, they collided, for a femtosecond creating a plasma of naked quarks and gluons, a state of matter nowhere seen since the Big Bang.
I read about the collision, thought about the beam splitter we’d entered. Was there a near intersection? I’d been years on my life’s beamline, accelerated by events and people, Ruth the same, both hurtling on, dissatisfied, lonely, confined. I saw how to bend my beam, aiming it at hers. They met, like the quark-gluon plasma, a created state both new and old.
She offered her hand. I took it. Again we leapt. Again, in grace, we landed.
Spurred on by Slade’s piece and Richard’s comment I cry Havoc! and let slip this one. I’d like to claim I knocked it off today but that would be a lie. I wrote it a couple of years ago.
I’m sitting in my workroom on a snowy day in the country, looking out the window at the woods, the creek, the dark-colored bank on the other side of the creek, where once I saw a weasel moving along dangerously.
Closer to me is the birdfeeder, which doesn’t have a tray underneath it. I bought one when I bought the feeder but when I went to assemble it I couldn’t find any machine screws and little hex nuts to attach it to the feeder and it seemed too much trouble to look through the jars of rusty hardware I’d brought to the country. So the seeds fell on the deck, where the cardinals and the dark-eyed juncos ate them. And the chipmunks did, too.
One year the chipmunks got to be a real problem. I didn’t care if they ate the dropped seeds. But then they started eating the cherry tomatoes, digging up pots of flowers and generally having their way with my deck. And of course with a good food supply they multiplied. Seemed as though every time I looked at the deck there were chipmunks scurrying around. Some of them jumped or fell off one side, into a large vat of water, and drowned. I didn’t find their bodies for a few days and then I threw them in the bushes. Too rotten for anybody to eat.
A hawk moved in and solved the chipmunk problem. Then she moved on and the chipmunks returned, but this time living in the crawl space and messing with my insulation. So, Havahart. Then what? Havahart plus pellet gun plus shovel.
I have no compunction about killing animals, even cute ones. You have to understand I grew up in a family where we killed things. We always ate them but I’m not going to eat chipmunk, so there’s a bit of a disjunction there.
No Disney hangups here. I shot a little red squirrel last year with my pellet gun, which is the only functional weaponry around here, except for my machete. Fucker was busting into the plastic tub of birdfood, the food I stored outside so I could fill the feeder more easily. Chewed right into the plastic. When I capped him he (well, maybe she) did a nice somersault.
I waved the body around to catch a crow’s attention. Pitched it out into the open, crow lunch. Effective recycling. The next one I offed because he attacked my wren house, climbed up in the cherry tree and into the wren house, mother and father wren doing their best to keep their eggs, or maybe there were little wrens by then. How could I not help them? Bang, see you later red motherfucker.
Red squirrels, according to Wikipedia, are aggressive, omnivorous, the scourge of nesting birds. I became the scourge of red squirrels, or at least those who came over to my place and caused trouble. Pretty soon word got around the red squirrel community and now they stay out in the woods or in the neighbor’s tree where I can see them from my bedroom window. Stay in your tree, Nutsy Squirrel, or die.
Then we have the raccoon, who dined at the bird feeder and the hummingbird feeder too. Rocky was a larger target but more stealthy. I threw my machete at one of them (there were a bunch of Rockies) but mostly what I did was move the feeders so they couldn’t climb on the railing and reach them.
There must be some size-personality calculus in operation. I was prepared to think of my Rockies as individuals with personalities in ways that I wasn’t prepared to for quick-moving jerky little creatures like the chipmunks and mean red squirrels.
The woodchucks, yes, mostly OK, happy to have them eat the clover and dandelions but then they zeroed in on my phlox. I was OK with their having the phlox that grew wild even though I could see it from the house, and it was very pretty in June before the woodchuck population grew, but then they started in on the ones I busted my ass planting.
I was OK with their digging dens out in the woods, not even any of my business, but when they dug one under the barn I was not OK with that especially since that put them in easy striking distance of my flowerbeds. Then they dug one under into my cellar, very uncool. Internet, UPS, Havahart (large size), fewer woodchucks.
So anyway, I think about this a lot. Am I one of those guys I don’t like? Kill everything, humans rule? I don’t think so.
What I think, and I’ve laid out my place accordingly, is that close to where I live is my territory and I share it with terrestrial creatures as I please, not as they please. In the house, we won’t even talk about the mice. They die. Just outside, or underneath, well, that’s mine too. No trespassers.
Farther out – and we’re talking 200 feet or a hundred yards – I don’t feel that way, and once we get out into my woods and down to the creek, hey, it’s all theirs. If I cut a path, it’s no problem for them. If I fell the occasional tree, OK, the same.
Sounds pretty good, no? Graded series, graduated responses. You might not agree but it’s a logical and defensible position.
The thing is, what about those birds? Can we come back to the birds? I invited the birds. The chipmunks died because of the birds, didn’t they? No seeds dropped, not many chipmunks, and not any on the deck eating tomatoes and messing with the pots. Or if the chickadees, nuthatches, and dark-eyed juncos were neater eaters, the chipmunk population wouldn’t have boomed. And the wrens were in a wren house I hung in the tree. Maybe Nutsy Squirrel would have gotten them somewhere else, but he went after them in the house I made for them.
Maybe I’m responsible for disrupting the predator-prey balance, not only inserting myself into the equation as top predator, but trying to control the others. When my hawk flew down from the barn to take a look at who was feeding at the birdfeeder I yelled at her – “No! Take the chipmunks, not the chickadees.” I believe I actually yelled “my little chickadees.”
So, Dear Reader, if you’re sensing some ambivalence on my part you’re onto something. Human interference with natural systems throw them out of whack and the human interferes even more. Or maybe it’s just bipeds versus quadrupeds. Back in the days before bird intelligence was well understood I was told something like “birds are stupid because they can fly.” But now we know that’s a gross overstatement. Birds are smart, although my pair of doves have always seemed like dimwits to me.
Back about that long ago there was no good evidence that birds were what’s left of the dinosaurs. Sure, it was an interesting idea, but didn’t have a lot to support it. Now it does, so OK, as a kid I liked dinosaurs and now I like birds.
Also I like Leda and the Swan (wait, how did that get in here?). My hawk’s beak is indifferent.
It’s a thin and spotty trail from bird-lover to Havaharts and pellet guns, but I guess it’s there. And I’ve been walking it.
The opening closed the fall before. About the time I put up the storms and started with the leaves, the lesser Pacific voices fell away into a great hissing sink. I had not found the ones I longed for, the Melanesian voices, Bougainvilleans, and by raking time Hispanic ones drowned them out, if indeed they were ever there.
In winter, 75 meters is a Spanish band.
I thought about my friend, a Colombian. If she wanted voices she could pick up her phone, dial, listen. Talk back, too. To get voices that’s all she’d have to do. Or she could get a big dish, point it at the bird, tune her sat receiver, find where in the spectrum it splashed down the Spanish it had sucked up from another continent. No problem.
The tropical voices I wanted would arrive by other routes: by polar scatter, by ion bouncing, meteor trails. I visualized lines, sines and cosines, theta, an electromagnetic latticework. I thought they would arrive sometime.
My friend’s voices came with pictures, Spanish evening news, something I’d never seen until Peru, Fujimori, hit the US networks – the fat judge, the red-dressed anchor woman, I remembered her well, speaking excellent English with who? Rather? Brokaw? Well, that I couldn’t remember, but all that fuss, so exciting, We’ve been staying up for twenty hours following that story, Dan. Or Tom. Shining Path was it? No, Tupak Amaru. Shining Path is a better name.
But nothing happened, did it? Nothing happened for weeks, was it months? The newscaster, her English speech so fine, her dress so red, she was pretty, too, and I wondered, What is her life like? Does she have a lover?
She stayed up twenty hours for guerrillas, working, excited. Stayed up twenty hours for nothing except an appearance on NBC. Or CBS. And the thing then pushed off the screen by other news, pushed off maybe even in Peru, going from Spanish news to nothing, then rescue, killing, news again. Years later, a novel. My friend got all this by pointing the remote, and in the language she wanted, too.
For her it was like a multilingual instruction book. Section Five, Spanish. Section Six, Italian. Section Seven, Serbian. But I would never find Section Eight, Neo-Melanesian, never surf through, point and click through to the voices I wanted. Never, no, they were down in the tropical bands, so low down there, and power? Forget it. The Bougainville transmitter was a converted amateur rig putting out eighty watts into a makeshift antenna hidden in the rebel hills. Shining Path? No, nothing so beautiful: my voices would be the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, the BRA.
And I thought I’d receive this in a city more than eight thousand miles away with a cheap receiver?
But I had to keep trying. When my longing overpowered me I called an 800 number, gave my credit card, paid for Fed Ex because I wanted the voices tomorrow, so naive, the overnight forty bucks extra, but since the receiver itself was fifteen hundred that seemed trivial. For fifteen hundred bucks I could have flown to Bougainville but it was blockaded, under siege, I’d never have gotten there anyway.
I called my friend who was good on ladders. We got the antenna on the roof, up three stories, drilled holes for the coax, passed wires down the laundry chute to the cold water line in the basement for ground.
The doorbell rang, the radio came. Unpack the glorious Japan Radio Corporation NRD-525. Nerd-525, I thought, but I didn’t care. Check Zulu time, the BRA should be on in fourteen hours.
I turned the thing on. Who among us reads instruction books? Powered on, it worked, no warmup anymore. Just a little thermal settling-in. The old Hallicrafters I had as a boy took ten minutes to stabilize, this new one about five seconds. Later I had a Collins that settled faster than the Hallicrafters, and the Nerd beat both of them, but to what end? It couldn’t hurry the signal.
Punch the frequency in, not like the old days, those fifties days of analog knobs, main tuning and bandspread, no, now I just key it in, press Enter, that’s it. Provided there’s a signal, it’s time to notch and filter, fuss with bandpass, choose the right width, decide whether to use the upper or the lower sideband, or both. Maybe blank the noise with the Noise Blanker. In a city there’s always noise.
No. Nothing on but Spanish and Jesus and probably Spanish Jesus, how would I know? Then I realized my blunder. The time’s right, the season’s not; I’m a third of the world away. All right, grab the propagation handbook, check out the charts. Oh. It’s hopeless in the winter. How did I forget? Fortunately the equinox is just a month away.
In the meantime, bleeding money, willing to bleed more, I sent for a sophisticated detector, Kiwa (Oregon-made, Oceanic-sounding). Installing it required opening the Nerd, doing a little wiring, but I hadn’t forgotten how to work delicate copper.
I listened for my voices well before the equinox. There’s grey area there, where is it written that the band should open on the very 23rd? No, it’s around that time, around the equinox, somewhere in there. Only listen my children and you shall hear.
By the Ides of March I was awake listening, hearing beats, heterodynes, whistlers: the higher spectrum’s own dawn sounds. Five fifteen seemed early enough to check. I listened drinking coffee, Colombian of course, but brewed before listening. The coffee maker carried the familiar warning: This device generates and uses radio frequency energy. Well, I wanted radio frequency energy too, but not from a coffee maker. I wanted it, I would use it, all I needed was about tenth of a microvolt.
One morning, impatient, I grabbed a yellow pad and wrote a prayer to Saint Marconi of the Kennelly-Heaviside Layer.
Oh Guglielmo, I pray to you, let the signal through,
raise it from the noise, as I raise my prayer to you.
Bless this sloper antenna, bless its traps and dipole
thick black co-ax, RG-8U, bless
this receiver, Japanese, triple conversion,
bless this detector, American, synchronous,
an added-on, unauthorized modification.
Let it not invalidate my warranty.
Only let the voices through and I will pray until
the superheterodyne conversion
of the Heathen. Also I will publish this prayer
three times or more.
I rose from sleep into bird song, more as winter passed into spring, woke mostly into car alarms, their chirps, opening doors, slammings, the urban sounds of dawn. Then to the radio, hissing, gurgling even with faxes. I wouldn’t use the memories or keypad, instead each time tuned by hand as if the ritual might make it happen. I’d slide up, wide band, 3880, 81, 82, 83 — a hint of carrier? — 84, lock on 3885. No joy. Try narrow. Shift the bandpass. Sit on the frequency and wait. Nothing.
In my memory the village eased into day with human sounds, tempered perhaps by a cock crowing under someone’s house, an old woman beating a pot to call her pig. In the village I rose from sleep into voices, a snatch of song, a little trill. Barking, grunting, wood being split. Children calling to each other.
One peri-equinoctial dawn that distant station rose from the noise, the suddenness of it all but stunning me, bringing me voices for an hour or so, voices forty milliseconds delayed from the village’s whirring night. Three eight eight five, risen, finally alive. Radio voices, familiar tones, cadences; I heard pieces in the old style, I heard songs. I heard reports of soldiers killed, of fire fights, of villages burned, of blockades, starvation, death. I heard the names of people I knew.
In the village it was fully night. If their radios survived, if there were batteries, Five Rams or Duck, they’d be listening too.
In my dawn I celebrated our ritual of long ago, not sitting with them on slatted benches, not smelling wood smoke; I performed it hunched over my set, notching, filtering, blanking, solo. No one laughed with me, no one exclaimed. No one called an old woman to hear, a schoolboy to explain, someone’s child to dance. There may be no dancing anymore, no school, I thought, and the old men and women teach the young survival in time of war.
Vibrating ether’s a century gone, no matter. Against all physics I conjured a medium conducting voices, linking us: fluid, listening together, rejoined.
My Dearest Ann, Michael, Caitlin, Patrick, Nancy, David, Judy, Bill, Helen, Martin, Shelley, Travis, Gail, Hart, Melanie, and Stacey –
I know you’re surprised to find paper letters on your pillows, in the dorm, because we don’t use paper except for special occasions. And today’s just another warm day in late October, 2027. Nothing special, really, except that this week, in much of our country, parents are telling children your age something very important. I wanted to write it on something that would last, so you can pass it on to your children.
The story begins before any of you were born.
The Obama-Biden victory over Palin-Jindal back in 2012 was a narrow victory after a brutally hard-fought, dirty campaign that nearly destroyed both parties. Everybody was alleging irregularities, corruption, tainted results. People were angry. There was street fighting. Some said the country was on the brink of another civil war.
The President, in an attempt to heal the wounds, invited the Palin entourage to the Inaugural Ball, and they accepted. It seemed a good sign. But when they entered, people noticed that Sarah’s gown wasn’t as revealing as usual, Todd’s suit seemed especially ill-fitting, and Bobby Jindal was positively round.
The three explosions killed not only the President and Vice-President, but most of the Democratic Senators and Congressmen, and half the Supreme Court.
With everybody in the direct line of succession gone, there was political chaos. What was left of Congress chose Michele Bachmann as president, with Christine O’Donnell as her vice-president. Bachman nominated the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh to the Court, and they were quickly confirmed by the overwhelmingly Republican senate.
Out of this mess emerged the political party first known as the “Palinistas,” which gobbled up what remained of the Republican Party after its savaging by the Tea Party. The Tea Baggers merged with the Palinistas and dropped their name, having finally understood what a “tea bagger” was.
The Palinistas were strongest in what we called the Red States – states that had historically right-leaning politics. Some influential Palinistas thought their name “too Hispanic” and so – lacking any sense of history or irony – many Palinistas began calling themselves “Reds.”
We on the left called ourselves Blues, because we were the majority in the so-called “Blue States.” Of course there were Reds in Blue states and Blues in Red states, but the country began to polarize, with Red States getting redder and the Blue states, more blue.
We Blues believed that good sense would prevail, our educational programs would succeed, and if we simply waited out the bad times our country would revert to its pre-Palinista political state of competing parties, which we still thought was workable if a bit rough.
We failed to understand that the Red strategy was to build their base by producing more Red babies, even in Blue states. They meant to quickly increase the size of their voting bloc by ramping up their reproductive rates.
Red theorists knew that drastically shortening the interval between births quickly adds bodies to any population. Small bodies, yes, but if you’re only counting heads that doesn’t matter. And you can do it quickly, pumping out babies as fast as possible – as soon as one is born, you get started making another. Because Red mothers rarely nursed their infants (too “animal-like”) they resumed ovulation rapidly, and were ready for a new pregnancy in a month or two.
A determined couple can make four babies in three years. Two parents . . . four babies . . . two into six . . . you’ve tripled your population in three years.
The Reds got to work immediately, but were quiet about what they were doing. It was only later they began to talk about the “Red Brigades of Women.” The media reported the skyrocketing birth rate, but we didn’t interpret it correctly. Some of us thought the Reds were behaving as many animals do, increasing their reproductive rate when times are good – a kind of ecological explanation. Others saw Reds as profligate, hypocritical breeders – a kind of cultural explanation. What the Red strategists wanted was that we should not take them seriously, and that’s exactly what happened during the first critical years, as we wasted time arguing ecology and culture.
It wasn’t clear how badly they had tricked us until they made their Constitutional move, which was in the dreadful year 2014.
First, the Red-controlled Congress lowered the voting age to eight, claiming this was only “taking away a one.” Unsurprisingly, the Supreme Court upheld the law.
Next, Congress passed the “Patriarchal Proxy Voting Act of 2014.” This allowed male parents to cast ballots on behalf of each of their children. Women kept their single votes. The Palinistas claimed that the PPVA merely recognized Judeo-Christian parental authority, and was consistent with “family values.” Of course the Supreme Court upheld the PPVA on the grounds that it was an obvious extension of “One Man, One Vote.”
Suddenly it became clear.
All along, the Reds had been planning to swamp us at the polls in 2016, and they did. Most Red families had already produced another three children. Even families who had no children before the Red Brigade of Women laid into their task with a vengeance would have at least six votes to cast: Mom, Dad, the one on the way, plus the 10-month, the 20-month, and the 30-month olds. Five votes for Dad, one for Mom. The Reds were in a state of rapture.
Now, the Blue states had always had the all first-rate universities and research centers. In 2015 we put those researchers to work on the only task that mattered – reproduction. We put our best minds, our best technologists and engineers, our medical people, to work. And although it was a very Red thing to do, we relaxed all controls and regulations and allowed researchers to do as they wished, subject only to their own consciences. The order was simple: find ways to out-reproduce the Reds.
That’s when men started having babies.
I was an early adopter. Getting pregnant was no fun. Yes, it was exciting to watch the in vitro fertilization of your mother’s eggs with my sperm, but to be abruptly taken from the microscope to have the eggs implanted in me, not so much.
Carrying the baby was no fun either. The first-generation artificial uteruses were clumsy Teflon things that I could feel inside me when I bent over or stretched, but the stem-cells-to-uterus technology matured quickly and soon I was able to grow my own.
Giving birth was difficult. My first delivery was Caesarian, but because I couldn’t have very many of them, I had to think about delivering two or three infants each time. I thought I could have half a dozen babies before my abdominal wall gave out.
But fortunately, before another year had passed I’d grown my own vagina (stem cells, again, with a little help from the surgeon to get it connected to my uterus). That was a relief – I delivered you younger kids vaginally.
The “Sperm Into Ovum Conversion” (SIOC) process was huge advance. Figuring out how to make sperm produce mitochondria (complete with DNA) was extremely difficult. Getting that working was a lot harder than anything else, but it meant that men could fertilize themselves if they wanted to.
In SIOC’s early days, the sperm were converted externally and then introduced into the man’s uterus through his vagina. In homage to the past, we called that device the “turkey baster.”
Within a year I could produce workable ova internally, needing only a hormonal trigger and some muscle contractions to pump eggs from my testes up into my Fallopian tubes to be fertilized by my sperm. (I needed a bit of surgical re-plumbing to make that work.) SIOC technology remains a closely-guarded secret.
For ethical reasons – yes, even in the rush and excitement and danger people worried about ethics – no one wanted to deprive women of their small, fixed store of ova. Before SIOC, population growth was limited by the number of ova. But sperm are a commodity item! SIOC made “Male-Only Reproductive Events” (MORE) possible, and thus for the first time in human evolution reproduction did not require women. This felt very strange to me, but even so I bore four MORE babies.
At that point – about 2018 – a man had an interesting set of choices: self-fertilization, fertilization of another man’s SIOC ova, or fertilization of ova flushed from a woman. More adventurous men combined them.
When somebody said to me, “Little Caitlin looks just like you,” I said proudly, “She is me!”
We kept SIOC secret because if the Reds ever accepted in vitro fertilization, they could press their infertile women into service. We didn’t hide the male pregnancy technology because we knew the Palinistas would never use it. They found it repulsive. Their men never allowed themselves to become pregnant. That would be, as I heard one of them say, “so gay.”
The numbers tell the story, children.
A human woman, Red or Blue, unassisted by advanced reproductive technology, can’t maintain 10-month birth intervals for very long. The Red Brigade of Women’s “Big Red Push” lost momentum after 2016, and by 2020, most Red families had only added another child or two. This meant that the Reds would go to the polls with eight or nine votes, about half what we Blues expected to have.
A Blue couple, starting in 2015, could have as many as 16 children going into the 2020 elections. To beat the Palinistas, we’d need only eight or ten. Even so, your mother and I worked hard to produce 16, which meant we cast 18 PPVA votes.
But we had to move our voters where they were needed. Hundreds of thousands of Blue families migrated to Red states, although we didn’t bother moving people into Utah. Your mother and I moved from Cambridge to Tupelo, Mississippi early enough to register for the elections, and after the elections we moved back. Tupelo wasn’t our kind of place. We were tolerated but certainly not welcomed.
We Blues were surprised by the lack of Red aggression, especially in the South. Some think it was because Blue Christians had succeeded in convincing many Red Christians to pay attention to what Jesus actually taught.
Needless to say, we swept the 2020 elections – Congress, the White House, every State governorship and most of the statehouses too. Out of courtesy, migrant Blues didn’t cast votes in local elections.
We had nothing to do with the bunker-buster bomb that was accidentally dropped on the Supreme Court building when the Court was in session.
Congress quickly repealed PPVA. Many migrants moved back, and relative calm prevailed in our country. In the seven years since then, we’ve contested elections in the old way, although the Democratic and Republican parties have disappeared. It’s just Reds and Blues now, and I’m glad to say that power’s been mostly in Blue hands, but we’ve never shut out the Reds as they shut us out. Both parties agree that there should never be another reproductive race, but that it’s not the sort of thing anybody should legislate.
My girls, it’s time for me to tell you our greatest secret. It’s been kept until this year – kept even from ordinary Blues. This week, the last week of October, Blue parents are revealing the secret, and that’s why I’m writing this letter.
The first group of Blue babies are now about 12, and you girls know what that means. Although we’re hoping you’ll wait a long time, you could begin to have babies soon.
I know you’re wondering what effect this great population bulge may have on the country and the planet. It worries us all. There have always been more young people than old, but there’s never been a difference like this. There are millions more young people between 7 and 12 than there ever have been. If they all go on to have two or three children, our population – and that of the world – will explode. It would be immoral to let our race for political control destroy not only our country, but others.
Now, we foresaw this problem early on. I led the team that developed what we call JOB – “Just One Baby.” It’s a DNA sequence that suppresses the ovulation-controlling GNRHR gene, and when it does, egg production shuts down. We inserted it into a retrovirus that finds GNRHR (it’s on chromosome four, in case you’re wondering). The retrovirus cannot insert itself into in eggs or sperm, so it cannot pass to the next generation. It works by monitoring hormone levels, and when it recognizes a live birth followed by lactation events, it permanently suppresses GNRHR.
The JOB virus was usually inserted during the SIOC process. It can also be inhaled, ingested, or picked up by contact. We made sure it was present in all Blue maternity hospitals.
It won’t affect anybody outside of the bulge, because we found a way – using tooth enamel isotope ratios – for it to sense whether a girl was born in North America during the time of our reproductive surge. In those girls – yes, my daughters, that means you – it arms itself and waits for them to reproduce. In anybody else it does nothing.
We have put it into all of you. It cannot be disabled.
I should tell you that we’ve taken special care to test its delivery in substances Reds prefer, and in places they typically go. I’ll say no more than that. We accepted responsibility for what we were going to do, and that meant dealing with the consequences. Helping Reds do the same is a simple favor.
Well. We can talk about all this after dinner, if you want to.
A couple of weeks ago I was crossing a street in Pueblo, Colorado and a young man’s voice called out, “I like your shoes.” I waved the backwards wave that says “I heard what you said, I don’t know who or where you are, it’s cool,” and kept on crossing.
The shoes were Nike Katana racing flats that Stefan got for me back in 2007, when he was working at an Ann Arbor running store. I didn’t like them, even though they were light, flexible and low-heeled, all traits that my feet like. But the Katanas never felt right, and after I raced in them a couple of times I retired them.
I brought them out of storage for our Western trip. This was partly to show Stefan they were getting some use, and partly because I hoped they’d make good driving shoes.
The next day we headed for St George, Utah on old US 50, crossing the Rockies at Monarch Pass on our way to Grand Junction. Climbing up, I passed a little Chevy Equinox that courteously moved over into the passing lane for my BMW.
Yes, our BMW is part of this story. I had one in the sixties and thought that I’d never have one again, because I had to use a van for my work in the race timing business. And I didn’t see how I’d ever get together enough money for one, by myself.
But when Ruth and her almost-new Subaru Forester came to live in Colden, and when I retired from teaching and shut down the timing business, we sold both our two fairly new vehicles, dug up some cash, and ended up with a 2007 3-series wagon, AWD and Sports Package. Fast, amazing handling, plenty of room for us, excellent in snow but . . . well, it’s a BMW, and that means dealing with how people relate to BMW drivers. Some seem pissed-off, some envious, some respectful, and some are oblivious. Some want you to pass them so they can try to glue themselves to your tail. Some don’t want you to pass, so they can slow you down.
For my part I can never decide whether to pass with authority, as I always found was the best way back when I was a good-enough foot racer (blowing by your competition usually discourages them, while easing by encourages them them to think they can re-pass) or whether to slide by politely. This assumes I have some choice in the matter, and on two-lane highways like US 50, often there isn’t any. Pass with authority or risk a head-on.
So I went by the Equinox politely. It had Colorado plates and a woman was driving it. She was courteously on my tail for much of the next 60 miles. She was a good driver. I didn’t try to get away from her, but a couple of times the BMW’s acceleration let me pass trucks that she couldn’t get by on the same stretch. But then she’d be back. It seemed companionable to me.
Just at the peak of Monarch – really, literally the top of the pass – three Harleys pulled out in front of me. These were ordinary cruisers, leather bags with fringed covers, open pipes – pretty much the standard Harley setup I see – no, hear – way too many of going along our road in Colden.
Before the Harley riders pulled out, I’d been following an 18-wheeler – not closely, but I could see it. He – I guess it was a he, but I don’t know for sure – was moving right along.
The Harley crowd wasn’t. Three brake lights lit up at every corner and stayed on through it. It was as if they were riding tricycles. Must. Stay. Upright. Didn’t anybody teach them to lean into corners? Use their gears?
I used to ride bikes when I was in college, and I even rode my AJS 500 single from Salt Lake to Denver once, up over and back Berthoud and Rabbit Ears passes, although I have to confess that I was briefly jailed in Craig, Colorado for a muffler violation. All I did was take off the muffler baffle to help with the altitude. It seemed an unfair rap, because it was Big Sky country, and at worst I annoyed some cattle. I don’t know why I didn’t get nailed for having no proof of insurance and riding on an expired Hawai’i license.
The Equinox on my tail, three can’t-ride-for-shit guys on lumbering Hogs in front of me, meant no way to have some fun coming down the pass. No way the Equinox woman wasn’t pissed too.
I loved it when the 18-wheeler literally ran away from the Harleys. Outran them! Two or three corners – including a tight one – and that rig was out of sight. I doubt that those dudes could have passed the 18 wheeler on a long Interstate sweeper. They just couldn’t ride their bikes, not that Hog handling is anything to write home about.
Those three guys kept me and the Equinox at bay for a good twenty miles. Finally I got a clear shot – a decent straight, nothing coming – but of course the assholes hit their throttles because, hey, it was a straight and they were on bad-ass V-twins.
After I shot up over the century and back down again, safely past them, I turned to Ruth and said, “This is why we paid all that money.” She said, “Safe at any speed,” and we laughed.
Pretty soon the Equinox was back behind us, and in the distance, I saw three single headlights. I wish I’d seen her do it. The guys might have talked themselves out of the 18-wheeler problem (no room!), they might have talked themselves out of the BMW problem (everybody knows BMWs are fast!), but the Equinox? Hard to see how they could manage that humiliation. I’m guessing they never talked about it.
At a light in Grand Junction the Equinox pulled up next to me. I rolled down my window and called out “Thanks for the company.” The woman smiled and waved. She had been good company. I don’t know whether she’d been feeling competitive or not, but her smile seemed genuine if a little surprised.
Later that day, on a long downgrade with beautiful sweeping curves, somewhere East of Salina, Utah, I went by a young man in a blue BMW 335i, the hottest 3-series outside of the M3. Dry, wide road in excellent condition, very little traffic, but he was doing no better than the Harley guys – tentative, lots of braking.
The next day, out of St George, another 335. White. Two 40-something women in it. I went by on an easy curve, doing the speed limit. At the next straight, they went by me at maybe 85. Whoops – next curve, they were down to 60. I went by them. Repeat. Repeat.
On the final straight into Nevada I noticed her Utah plate: O2BME.
So. Harleys, an Equinox, a couple of fearfully-driven Bimmers, one with a genuine vanity plate, me and Ruth in our wagon. And before that, an old guy, not looking too fit, crosses a street in Pueblo, Colorado, wearing Nike Katana racing flats.
There’s no doubt they are strange-looking shoes and no doubt they look even stranger being worn on the street, nowhere near a race. What was the guy saying? Was it “weird shoes, dude,” or was it “what’s an old fart like you doing wearing racing flats?” Or was he saying exactly what he said – that he liked my shoes?
I’ve been pondering that for a while. I thought about it while stuck behind the Harleys, I thought about it when O2BME passed me, and even today, on the treated-lumber deck of a small and exceedingly pleasant little motel in Dubois, Wyoming, perched over the Wind River, I’m still pondering it.
I used to be a pretty fast runner, but those days are over. I can’t run even one mile as fast as I used to run 26.2 of them. But I still have racing shoes. And I even have spikes.
I didn’t get spikes until 2004, because I had no need of them. I did very little track running and no cross-country (XC). But in 2004 I wanted to try “European-style” XC which means woods, mud, water, rocks, hills. A lot of XC races are run in parks and on golf courses, which is fine. If I were organizing a high school meet I’d never put the kids into difficult terrain. I wouldn’t even do it for a college team. But this was a historic all-comers race in a county forest in Boston, NY, which is not far from Colden. It’s known as the “Mud Run,” and is somewhere around 6k. It’s never been measured, and I don’t think anybody cares.
When we were all hanging out waiting for the women to finish their race, I noticed that the college-age men were wearing spikes, some of the high school and even some of the older guys were, but probably half the runners were in regular shoes. And because I knew that probably three-fourths of the runners were going to beat me, I felt a little ashamed of myself, especially since my spikes were new, and obviously so even though I’d been careful to run in some mud while warming up.
I wasn’t in great shape, so I took it out easy. Since the first quarter mile or so was straight uphill, I could do little else. In the muddy part through the forest at the top I began to realize that, slow as I might be, I’d had years of experience on muddy trails, on Bougainville. I passed a few people. On the first long downhill, which was a dirt-rock combination, I passed a few more. I knew about that kind of surface. And when we got back into the woods and there were roots, rocks, mud, and some sharp drop-offs – I passed more people.
There’s no miraculous ending here. I knew the people I passed were faster runners than I, and they would pass me when the surface improved. Most of them did, but in the end I beat a few people who would have scorched me in a road race. And my time was a lot closer to the winning time that it would have been on the roads.
Because of my spikes? Well, they helped. I loved how they felt on my feet, and I loved the grip they gave me not just going up, but down. And I loved the feeling that I was wearing the right shoes for the job, so that the responsibility for my performance lay with me, not my equipment.
But I think it was mostly like the Equinox versus BMW situation. Although I can’t know, my guess is that the Equinox woman knew the road and knew how to get the most out of her car on it. I blasted by the first truck and the Harley guys because I had a lot of horsepower and a great-handling car, so I could pass anytime it was safe. She couldn’t, but she didn’t have to. She must have known where she could do it with what she had.
Just as the guys in front of me at the Mud Run couldn’t get as far ahead of me as they would have in a road race, where they could have used their superior speed, the Equinox driver hung with me because my superior speed didn’t count for as much on Monarch Pass curves I’d never seen before as it would have on a road neither of us had been on before.
And the Katanas? Well, I think I’ve earned the right to wear them anywhere I want to, but how is anybody – the shouter or anybody else – to know that? If the guy in Pueblo was making fun of me, I only fault him for making fun of somebody he didn’t know, not for reacting to something that might have seemed to him improbable and maybe even disrespectful of his sport.
And it’s the same with our Bimmer and its New York plates out here in the West. Ruth and I are a little defensive about this. We aren’t a couple of old urban farts who happen to have enough money to show off with a BMW, even though it’s easy to see why anybody might think that. They can’t know that we haul rural supplies in it, and plow through heavy snow on difficult roads. And more than once the hatch has been open with 2 by 10 treateds sticking out, red flag and all. They can’t know how and why we got together what it took to buy it. I understand that. Anybody can understand that, I think, but that doesn’t make driving it, or wearing the Katanas, less fraught.
I don’t like feeling as though I have to apologize for what I drive or what I wear, or that footwear or cars define who I am. But like it or not, I – we – live in a world where that can be the case. If those Harley riders were introspective at all (and who am I to say that they weren’t?) maybe they were thinking the same thing. I doubt it – I think they and O2BME were very much alike – but it’s possible.
And so when we get out of the rough country and back onto the Interstates, I’m going to take off my Merrill hikers and slip the Katanas back on. They’ve turned out to be great driving shoes.
Sixty-five years ago today (9 August 1945) the bomb known as “Fat Man” fell away from the B-29 bomber “Bockscar,” and detonated about 1,500 feet over Nagasaki. Fat Man exploded with the force of about 21 kilotons of TNT, immediately killing somewhere between 40,000 and 75,000 Japanese, mostly civilians.
I was just over two years old, living in Hilo, Hawai’i, and have no memory of that event, nor do I remember the Hiroshima bomb three days earlier. And I don’t remember Japan’s surrender, which took place only a few days later. My partner Ruth – who is just three months older than I am, and was living in Chicago – also remembers nothing about those explosions.
I don’t have any memories that center on what we used to call “A-bombs” until I was nine or ten years old – this would have been 1952 or 53 – when at Riverside Elementary School, where we had already been taught to duck and cover in case of earthquakes, we were taught to use the same procedure in case of atomic attack. That there should be earthquakes on the island was predictable. They shook and rolled us regularly. As for atomic attacks – who knew what the Russians might do?
I remember riding with a friend, in a car driven by his father. We were playing in the back seat with wooden swords that I had made. Between Waimea and Honoka’a the father asked us, “Do you boys know what to do if there’s an atomic attack?” We said that we did. I remember this because even at that age I recognized the irony of playing at swordfighting while talking about atomic weaponry.
I certainly didn’t know the word irony, but I had some notion of the difference between atomic bombs and conventional ones. I was aware of how strange it was to be play-fighting with weapons no longer used in war, while declaring I knew how to deal with new weapons so fierce that a single one could destroy a city. And I believe that even then, I understood that no matter what our teachers told us, ducking and covering would not keep me safe if the Russians attacked us with atomic bombs.
I had by then read Hersey’s Hiroshima. I found it fascinating, I remember that, and I remember being saddened, and I remember struggling with the scale of the thing. Many more people than lived in our town had died instantly. It was incomprehensible and yet it had happened. So I knew that it should be comprehensible in some way. I just didn’t know what that way was. I can’t say I was obsessed by it. It was something I stored away in memory and sometimes it would bubble up and I would think about it again.
I remember the front page story in the Hilo Tribune-Herald, reporting that Stalin had died. This was March, 1953, and I remember asking my mother whether this meant the end of war, that there could now be no atomic war with Russia. I don’t remember my mother’s response, but I am sure she told me that the threat of atomic war hadn’t disappeared with Stalin.
In 7th grade I wanted to run for Student Council Vice-President. Election posters were allowed, and I remember laying out a large sheet of paper and, with crayons and watercolors, creating a mushroom cloud, all reds and yellows and browns, and lettering it “Vote Mitchell — The Atomic Candidate — for VEEP.” I didn’t win. I was only trying to attract attention. Certainly I didn’t lose the election because of it; I never thought that. But I also never stopped to wonder whether linking my candidacy to mass destruction and death was a good tactic. I only thought that a mushroom cloud would be eye-catching.
On Friday, August 1st, 1958, about midnight, a Redstone ballistic missile carried a W39 thermonuclear device to about 50 miles above Johnston Island, where it detonated. This was the first missile-launched nuclear shot. The W39’s yield was 3.8 megatons, or, putting it another way, it released about 1,800 times the destructive power that Fat Man had. We in the Hawaiian Islands, about 1,000 miles north-northeast of the shot, had not been warned.
I had just turned 15, and was home asleep because my mother did not let me stay out that late. Some of my friends were out in Hilo, and when the sky lit up and something like a mushroom cloud formed, they were amazed and shocked. Was it a volcanic eruption? But no eruption flashed like that, or created a fireball.
Some of them went home, woke up their parents, and told them that World War III had started. There was no place to turn for information. The AM radio bands didn’t seem to be working. Television was never on at that time of night. By the next morning everyone knew it had been only a test.
In those days teenage boys did not talk readily about their fears. But it was clear to me that my friends had been badly frightened. And yet they were excited, too, as I was. What a thing to have seen! An H-bomb!
The military denied that the failure of medium-frequency and high-frequency communications over much of the Pacific, lasting even into the next day, was related to the test. They promised to warn us before the next shot, which would be sometime in August.
Many years later it would be revealed that testing for the effects of the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) was an important goal of that shot, which was code-named Teak. The Teak shot observers failed to gather the data they wanted, because Hans Bethe had miscalculated the likely energy of the EMP, and all the instruments, set to record low levels, were instantly driven into overload and delivered no useful information.
They would do better with the next shot, code-named Orange, scheduled for the night of August 12th, a Tuesday.
In Hawai’i you can be licensed to drive at 15, and I was. A group of us planned to drive to Ka Lae (South Point) about 80 miles from Hilo, to see the H-bomb. I was surprised my parents let me drive the family car there, but they did. Perhaps my mother, a high school teacher, thought it would be educational. I had my sister – a little older than I was – and, I’m almost certain, my girlfriend C. Of course we drove our cars in a convoy, we had beer and cigarettes and radios tuned to mainland stations and we were all excited.
We went to Ka Lae because Ka Lae is the southernmost land in Hawai’i, which meant that there was nothing but the Pacific Ocean between us and Johnston Island. We also went to Ka Lae because there was a tracking station there. I assumed that the tracking station had something to do with the Johnston Island tests, but none of us knew whose tracking station it was. In those days big dishes were rare. This one was surrounded by barbed wire. Its concrete pillar still stands and even now when I drive visitors to Ka Lae I wonder how many of the people who see it near the road know what it was.
We sat in the cars, and outside on blankets, and kept looking where the dish was pointing. And suddenly there it was, of course without warning. A flash, a burst of static on the car radios, and the fireball, rising. This image was made closer to Johnston Island – I haven’t found any images of Orange as seen from Hawai’i – but from Ka Lae it was spectacular. Awesome. The fireball expanded and there seemed to be a cloud, perhaps even a mushroom cloud, around and above it.
More than anything, I was intensely aware that I was seeing an H-bomb. In those first few seconds I had no other thought, and no feeling other than excitement. As a Hawai’i boy I knew the feeling of seeing for the first time things (television, for example) that I knew people on the Mainland were used to seeing. My first thought was: so this is what an H-bomb is. Everything I thought about it was subsumed by the rising, expanding fireball.
And then the excitement. We were all yelling at each other. Did you see that? Amazing! Rugged! We hugged each other and danced around, even though our radios played only static. We drank more of our beer. We waited – for what? I don’t know. We knew there wouldn’t be another, but we didn’t want to leave. Finally, early in the morning, we drove home. I told my parents it had been a sight worth seeing. I described it. I said nothing about what I’d felt.
Did I later stop to think about the enormous destructive power contained in that fireball I witnessed? Not that I remember. Did I relate it to Hiroshima or Nagasaki? No, I didn’t, for all that it was August. I knew I wasn’t likely to forget what I saw that night because it was so extraordinary, but teenage life went on.
A few weeks later I began my junior year at Hilo High. I was involved in amateur radio, the Civil Air Patrol, and the local Civil Defense, which as an organization was much more engaged in lava flows and tsunamis than in fallout shelters. Even so, Civil Defense was supposed to be concerned with atomic warfare, and so I learned about radiation and how to measure it.
In 1960 I was a freshman in college, and thought I wanted to be an electrical engineer. That didn’t last long, but before I discovered Anthropology I signed up for a 1-credit course called “Radiological Health,” which was actually a PE course. We learned how to operate Geiger and other radiation counters (I already knew about them, which made the course look like an easy A), we learned about rads and millirads and shielding and radiation contours.
On the evening of our final exam, the instructor laid out a dozen yellow Geiger counters and sheets of graph paper and said, “I’ve hidden a few dozen sources in the building. Go find them. Map the radiation levels.”
I thought nothing of it beyond admiring it as a clever exam. I made an excellent map – in three dimensions, thanks to having studied Mechanical Drawing at Hilo High – and got a good grade.
In 1964 I met Ruth, who took me home to meet her father Stan. She introduced him as her father, not as Stanley G. Thompson, the nuclear chemist he was, although I am sure that she mentioned it. Ruth is as modest as her father was, but it’s likely that she told me that he was a co-discoverer of three of the transuranic elements: Berkelium, Californium, and Mendelevium. Neither she nor I can remember.
If she did, it didn’t stick with me. I only met him the one time. I remembered what a good time we’d had fishing from his boat, in the Sacramento River delta, nothing more. Over the forty years I spent apart from Ruth – years during which the only chemistry I encountered had to do with archaeological dating – I remembered her father only as a man who knew Willard Libby, the developer of radiocarbon (C14) dating. I believed (wrongly, as I discovered) that they had been colleagues.
And every time I lectured to my classes about C14 I told them I had known someone who had known Libby, and I thought of Ruth and how foolish I had been to have allowed myself to drift away from her when I went East in 1964. And I thought that someday I might find her again, but during those forty years I never even looked.
And when, as always, I had to talk about other radioactive materials and half-lives, and would use plutonium as an example, I would tell my students about having witnessed an H-bomb explosion, although by then I was properly calling it a thermonuclear explosion. I meant to tell them about how casually nuclear explosions and nuclear materials were handled, even in my lifetime. I told them about the shoe-fitting fluoroscopes operated by the salesmen, devices through which I’d been shown my little toes wiggling inside shoes – yes, he has enough room – while the salesman, all unknowing, was receiving a blast of radiation in his crotch. I always told them my Radiological Health story and asked them how long they thought I’d keep my job, tenure or no tenure, if I hid radioactive materials in the Classroom Building at Buffalo State College and sent my students out to find them.
But every time I talked about my H-bomb I knew that part of me had never gone beyond the you can’t believe what I saw amazement of August, 1958. I never failed to talk about it in Part II, Isotopic Dating Methods, and I think my story had a good effect on the students, but I always knew it had a showing-off component I didn’t like admitting to myself. I told my nuke stories twice a semester, four times a year, for more than thirty years.
In 2004 I found Ruth again, 40 years after I’d lost her. As we were getting reacquainted, I asked about her father. She told me he had died of cancer at 64, and she had always thought it likely that the cancer was because of his work with radioactive materials. What they were doing was very exciting, and they had all been careless.
She matched my fluoroscope story with her cooling pond story, one that she had not told me in 1964, because at the time she thought nothing of it. In the mid-fifties the Thompson family was in Sweden, where Stan was at the Nobel Institute for a year. Sweden. Cold. So where were people around the Institute to swim? Where were pools of warm water to be found?
If you know what a cooling pond is you already know the answer. No, they didn’t swim in the actual pond where the spent reactor rods were cooling. But they swam in what must have been secondary or overflow ponds. Indeed it may well be that radiation levels in cooling pond overflows are not great. I don’t know, but as in the fluoroscope example, no one seemed concerned about it.
And then Ruth told me something about her father that I had not known. The Hiroshima bomb was a uranium bomb, but the first nuclear bomb (the “Gadget,” detonated at Alamogordo) was a plutonium bomb, as was the one dropped on Nagasaki sixty-five years ago today. And so was the W39 device that produced the fireball I saw in the Ka Lae sky.
Ruth’s father Stan was brought into the Manhattan Project to invent a process that could produce plutonium on a massive scale. No one had ever produced more than a few micrograms, but the bomb-makers needed kilograms of it. Glenn Seaborg thought that his high school buddy Stan Thompson could do it if anyone could, and he was right. All the plutonium in Gadget and Fat Boy was produced by the process Ruth’s father invented and oversaw.
Without his work, there would have been no plutonium-fueled bomb. He didn’t design the bomb. He didn’t assemble it. He didn’t open the bomb bay doors and he didn’t detonate it. Even so, the tens of thousands of people who died at Nagasaki in part died because of what Stan, the father of the woman I love, did.
When Ruth told me about her father, it excited me. I admit it. Sometimes I am ashamed of what I let it do to me if I’m not careful. Sometimes I have the urge to tell people who are getting to know Ruth – people like Zara and Simon, there in the restaurant at East Randolph – Do you know what Ruth’s father did? He discovered elements and he made the plutonium for the Nagasaki bomb. Is that amazing, or what?
Is that trivializing his work – and him – or what? Of course it is.
The small man I met behind Berkeley in July 1964, the man who took me fishing, handed me beers, looked the other way when I kissed his daughter – this was a man who had done something of consequence, and I had not known it. And when I did learn it, I didn’t know what to do with it. As we say these days, I didn’t know how to process it. I still don’t.
At the Orange shot I was excited by an extraordinary event and for years did not go beyond that excitement. It wasn’t that I couldn’t. I simply felt no need to try. It was something I’d witnessed, and I’d witnessed it because people were casual about thermonuclear shots in those days. I had compartmentalized my experiences; my H-bomb was disconnected from what I knew – had known even before 1958 – about what happened when nuclear weapons were used in war. Neither Teak nor Orange was detonated in anger, and neither did any serious harm.
And yet . . . what was it, then? A simulacrum of the deadly strikes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Saying so is too facile. If I could return to Ka Lae and inject meaning into that boy’s simple perception of an awe-inspiring, exciting, yes beautiful fireball. . . what would that meaning be? Everything I can think of seems at once too simple to an old man, and too complicated for a boy.
And what of Ruth, and her father, and whatever of her father lies within her and is part of her song? She has written of him in his deafness, pressed up against speakers, listening to Beethoven. She tells of him sitting in his chair, thinking, doing the kind of chemistry-of-the-mind that preceded his making it manifest in the lab. For that, he needed no equipment. He only needed a place to sit, and time to think.
So I am wondering, today, August 9th, 2010, how often and in what ways he thought about the process he conceived, gestated, gave birth to, and then released to others, who made of it fiery destruction as never before seen in the world. It is impossible that he did not think of Nagasaki.
It is said that upon Gadget’s explosion Oppenheimer recited from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Ruth does not know where her father was on that day, except that he was not at Alamogordo, nor does she know where he was on August 9th, 1945.
He might have been in Chicago. He might have been at Hanford. He might have had his first daughter, now my life’s partner, in his arms. Perhaps he sang to her. Perhaps he wept. He never said.
It’s the Fourth of July. Independence Day, so I’ve been thinking about 1776 and all that. Last night I saw a silly TV ad featuring Ben Franklin and other mythic Revolutionary figures pounding the Bud and partying. All this started me thinking about Founding Fathers.
I’ve only known one actual Founding Father.
Michael Somare, the current Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, was also first Chief Minister when PNG became independent, in 1975.
In 1973, at a party during which political talk and South Pacific Lager flowed freely, he and I carved up a pig and laid it out to be served, because nobody else knew how to do it.
I was out of my Bougainville village, visiting Port Moresby, the capitol city. I hadn’t met Somare before the party, which was held at the house of Alexis Sarei, a Bougainvillean ex-priest who was beginning his own political career.
Alex was hosting a party for the Bougainville students at the University of Papua New Guinea, and Somare was the guest of honor. The students included Ephraim Makis and perhaps a dozen others.
Political change was in the air, athough I don’t think any of us expected independence to arrive as swiftly as it did. Everyone thought Australia would hang onto Papua New Guinea as long as it could, not least because of the extraordinarily profitable copper mine in the center of Bougainville Island that enriched not just its multinational owners, but the colonial administration. After 1975, it became the newly-independent government’s main source of revenue, a situation that continued until angry Bougainvilleans rose up against both the mine and their national government. The result was more than a decade of secessionist fighting. Many Bougainvilleans died, including some of the young men at that party.
Michael Somare and some others had founded the political party Pangu not long before the pig incident. Although Somare’s home turf (the Sepik region) was nearly a thousand miles from Bougainville, he was trying to build a national movement. So it made sense for him to get to know the Bougainvillean students and activists.
One of the Bougainvilleans who was also most likely at the party was Father John Momis, a Catholic Priest and PANGU party member who was elected to the colonial House of Assembly as one of the Members from Bougainville. John eventually left the priesthood, had a long and extraordinarily varied political career, and was, last month, elected President of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville. In that same election, Alex Sarei returned to Bougainville from Los Angeles, and was elected to the Bougainville Assembly. Leo Hannett, who was probably at the party, was also elected to the Assembly.
But what about the pig? How did I come to be perhaps the only living American to have cut up a pig with a Founding Father of any country?
More than anything else, the pig story touches on the paths we all took to get to that house in Port Moresby. Michael Somare was probably ten or fifteen years older than any of the Bougainvilleans, which meant that he had spent more time in what I’ll loosely call “traditional” society than they had. The Bougainvilleans at the party mostly left their rural villages in their early teens, and had been in the education system – high school, the University of Papua New Guinea, the technical schools, ever since then. Before they left, and certainly home on holidays, they would all have all seen pigs being cut up. But as it happened, none of them had actually done it.
But because I had spent years in a traditional Bougainville village, learning their ways, doing my research, helping with animals and feasts, I had.
When the pig was ready there was much alcohol-fueled discussion about what should be done with it. As I remember, no one had given any particular thought to the last stages of prep. In the end the Bougainville students were not prepared to attack the pig, which lay on its stomach on some banana leaves.
You have to remember that this was a colonial environment. As a outsider, I was wary of doing anything that might be taken the wrong way. So you’re not going to let us cut up our own pig? wasn’t something I wanted to hear, and neither was “So you think you know our customs better than we do?”
But I did know how to cut up a pig. Michael Somare seemed to be looking at the pig as if he knew what to do, too. I had my big clasp knife in my pocket, so I went over to him and said that a couple of village lads like us ought to be able to cut up the pig.
I pulled out my knife and opened it. He looked at me and asked me if I really knew how, and I said I did. He went and got a butcher knife from the kitchen, and the Founding Father-to-be and I carved the pig and set it out to be eaten. Somare didn’t care in what style we cut it, so I showed him how to cut it in the style of my Bougainville region, the area called Nagovisi (and because I’m doing foundational political figures here, I’ll say that the two Presidents of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville before John Momis – Joseph Kabui and James Tanis – were both Nagovisi). This gives me enormous pleasure because in the old days the Australians regarded the Nagovisi as bushy and cranky – a people who would never amount to anything. I knew that was not so, and it’s been proven not so over the years since then.
The lesson here is obvious but does have some subtleties. The subtlety has to do with the practical aspects of having been enculturated in a particular socio-cultural context. I’d made it my business to learn about cutting up pigs, and the students had not. Even back in my village not everyone knew how to cut up pigs. I knew the names of the strips (although after all the South Pacific Lager that we’d knocked back I’d have been hard pressed to name them) and I knew which were considered more prestigious. None of this made me more a Bougainvillean than any of the students. It just made me somebody who’d learned something useful from another culture.
The names and the symbolic meaning of the strips that Michael Somare and I cut the pig into had meaning only in Nagovisi. I took a little ribbing from the students, and got a little praise, too. I was pleased with myself – I admit that.
All that really happened at that party was that I showed I’d mastered a particular technique used in one part of Bougainville that none of the students knew or would ever have any reason to know. They were already far down their paths of becoming the architects of a new country, which meant they were learning politics, economics, literature – even war. They wouldn’t be learning any new village skills.
And the Founding Father? Michael was older. He had spent longer in the village than they had. Michael was starting something new, but he had knowledge of the old ways – beliefs, social relations, economics, the spiritual world, kinship. He knew those things, yes. And he knew how to cut up a pig.
So did I.