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Aren’t you a little old for this sort of thing?

No.

 

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.”

red cover 07In 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.”

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.

Each dawn I sat in my room, standing stooped sometimes, waiting in that bluish crepuscular light, the  display flickering on my glasses, reflected in the window. Nothing, nothing. Nothing.

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.

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.

In the white shimmering overexposed one he’s looking through his chrome camera at Niagara Falls in late December. This was before black cameras were the common things they are now, so the only black in the print is Makis’ face, though little of it shows above the fur collar and below the knit hat. It’s 1978.

In another he’s holding what we christened the world’s largest chicken, a stupendous fowl as big as a small turkey. He cradles it in the crook of his arm as if it were a baby. We couldn’t decide whether to boil it village fashion or to roast it whiteman style. In the end we roasted it because we had neither bush spinach nor coconut milk, and anyway, what’s the point of bogus village cooking?

But the one I’ve got on my wall, the one I brought down from the attic in 1996 when I heard he’d been murdered – that’s the one I like best. Christmas Day. He’s holding the Elvis calendar I gave him. I want you, I need you, I love you, it says along the top, above the picture of Elvis in a cowboy hat.

“This is a good one,” he said in real life. In the picture he says nothing. He’s just sitting on my Beluchistan rug, in front of my Japanese wedding chest, bottom of the Christmas tree at the top of the frame, wrapping paper spread around him. There’s a big can of Foster’s Lager, still in red tissue paper, which I got to make him feel at home. I couldn’t get any South Pacific Lager. Solomon Islands, Beluchistan, Japan, Christian holiday, Australian beer, and old Elvis, wreathing them all.

It took me a while to find those pictures. I keep my past in the attic, even though it ought to be in the basement. That would be more appropriate for a prehistorian: the past below, the future above. Now is somewhere in the middle, but of course when I hold a picture in my hand the whole thing gets confused. There’s the past right in front of me. I looked on shelves and in old boxes. I looked in envelopes. I finally found them in a drawer under a gyroscopic top and some chrome surveying tape clamps I used in the village.


“Hey Makis,” I said, “hey wantok,” a little catch in my voice, tears starting to my eyes. “Hey, it’s me. I’ve been looking for you.”

“Shit,” I said in English, “sonofabitch. Those fucking assholes!” I had to curse them, ineffectual as it was. What else could I do? I didn’t know who they were, the guys who killed him, even though I knew how it happened: two guys in ski masks (in ski masks? this is Port Moresby, only a few degrees off the equator) burst into his house, backed his wife and kids and his brother into a corner, and waited for Makis to come home from a peace conference in Lae. When he did, they blew him apart with shotguns, and when his brother leapt at them they knifed him to death. All this in front of Makis’ wife and kids.

The government put out the story that they were robbers. How could they imagine anyone would believe them? They were killing all the educated Bougainvilleans over there in Papua New Guinea, killing them as fast as they could. Nobody cared. Nobody was interested in a small corrupt country in the Pacific, a country that – when Makis was murdered – had a rebellion on its hands, one small but mineral-rich island that wanted to secede, and Makis, for all that he was a peace-seeker, was the revolution’s black face in the capital city.

Makis made his way to Buffalo out of a little village in Buin, to the Catholic high school at Kieta, into the University at Port Moresby, and then into graduate school in Ottawa, which was where he was when he came to visit me. Getting a Ph.D. in Development Economics. Before they assassinated him he became the Director of the research unit at which I used to work.

He came on the bus and I went across the Peace Bridge to Fort Erie to get him and bring him to Buffalo.

“What is your citizenship?” the US border guy said.

“US,” I said.

“Papua New Guinea,” Makis said.

“Pull over there, go to Immigration.”

Makis and I laughed about it, wondering which countries wouldn’t have to go to Immigration. Canada for sure. Maybe everybody else did, but I doubted it. I’d seen the guys in the booth looking at passports, though I’d never seen them stamping them. My passport was stamped SEEN AT PORT MORESBY, TERRITORY OF PAPUA NEW GUINEA, but Makis’ had no United States of America stamp in it yet. Once it did we pulled out, drove through the west side and on to my house.

“You know,” Makis said, “I never fool around with officials, the government. It’s dangerous and you can’t trick them anyway. My passport says Papua New Guinea on it and it’s got that Canadian student visa in it, so I am what I am.”

I said, “There was a cartoon character who said ‘I yam what I yam,’ but he didn’t look like you.”

Makis said, “Yes, I believe that was Popeye The Sailor Man. I don’t have forearms like his. But in Ottawa when I’m dealing with regular people I tell them I’m from Gambia, and sometimes I tell them I’m the Gambian Ambassador to Canada, and they believe it. No one in Ottawa can tell the difference between a Bougainvillean and a Gambian.”

I laughed. “What made you pick Gambia?”

Makis said, “I just looked at an atlas for a small African country. Burkina-Faso was too hard to say, and I liked the sound of Gambia. That’s how. So some of the people in the bars in Ottawa think I’m the Gambian Ambassador.”

By that time we were home.

“This is where I live,” I said to Makis, “this is my house.” And I was aware that to him, coming from Canada instead of the village, it would seem ordinary. I was sure he’d find some differences between student apartments in Ottawa and big doubles in Buffalo, but not much, not really.

I said to Makis that it seemed unfair that when he came to see me I couldn’t show him anything unusual, anything really strange to him. It was just an ordinary house in an ordinary northeastern city in winter. Nothing he hadn’t seen before.

“You know,” I said, “when I went to Bougainville and walked into a village for the first time it seemed strange to me because it was strange. I hadn’t ever lived in a leaf house in a village in a clearing in the rainforest. And I could hardly speak the language, either, and I was really overwhelmed.”

“True,” he said.

“And now you’re here with me and I’m wishing that I could have offered you something really different,” I said, “but I can’t. Except that you get to see me in my actual house. Well, Niagara Falls. That’s about it. I think I even wish I could overwhelm you, because it would be fun, and payback too.”

Makis said, “It doesn’t matter, but it would have been fun. You should have seen me when I first went to Sydney and saw what a really big city was like. I was amazed at the scale of the thing, but now I’m used to it. So you’re right. There’s not much new here for me, but it’s OK. I can learn your neighborhood. Neighborhoods are always different.”

The Gambian Ambassador and I went down to Cosentino’s Deli to get beer. At the cooler I said to him, “Why don’t I pretend you’re the anthropologist and I’m the informant, and I’ll introduce you to our local poisons. You can do participant-observation.” I got him a six-pack of Iron City, a forty-ounce bottle of Colt 45, some Genesee, and some Koch’s Holiday.

Mr. Cosentino was minding the counter, and I was thinking about the Gambian Ambassador thing, but while I was thinking, Mr. Cosentino looked at Makis and said, “You’re a Solomon Islander, aren’t you? I was there in the war.”

Neither one of us thought of saying No, he’s the Gambian Ambassador to Canada.

When I was a little boy my favorite waking dreams involved time travel and modern weaponry. In these dreams I was transported to scenes where my heros were besieged by enemies of their own time, enemies who had triumphed in historical time, but would fail in dream time as soon as I arrived with my favorite weapon, a fifty-caliber machine gun. I sat, legs braced against its tripod, spewing unexpected, astonishing magical death: the invincible boy, as terrifying and devastating to the enemy as any spirit or demon or alien could be. We would not be overwhelmed. We would not die. Of course I understood the falsity of these dreams. I had not changed history, witnesses being my teachers and the books in which good died and evil lived. I dreamed anyway.

Makis, I know there’ll be trouble tonight, so I’ll be at the compound gate. No heavy machine gun; instead I’ll be your bodyguard, skilled in martial arts, cat-quick and lethal. Let one assassin raise his shotgun and before he slips the safety, before he can raise it and point, I’ll leap and kick. Only roofing iron will die. I’ll subdue them while you watch, amazed. You didn’t know I could do this. You’ll move to protect your kids, your wife, your brother. But you won’t need to because I’ll already have the knives and guns. I’ll hurt the ski-masked thugs, those bloody redskinned Highlanders, until they tell us who sent them, and why.

You’ll say, “Thanks, mate.”

I’ll say, “I do what I can, Ambassador.”