Mea culpa.

I made a mistake.

In my previous post, I spoke about Gary, Indiana.

We had not been to Gary, Indiana at the time of writing.

I’m very sorry.

But in a seamless segue, I’m certainly not as sorry as I am that I don’t live in Gary, Indiana. Because that’s just a wonderful little town, full of quaint local characters, strong economic development, and pleasant memories.

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.

This happened in 1996. Today realized I wasn’t going to be able to find the pictures I took that night, so I looked for some images on the internet, and found this. It’s from 2008, and I have no idea if it’s the same woman. I don’t think I want to know.


The first time I saw her she was wearing hot pants. I knew that kind of pants had another name but that’s what popped into my mind. I let the name stay because they seemed sexy to me, those pants. I’m old enough to remember when women wore little tight shorts called hot pants, but I hadn’t liked those seventies hot pants at all, because they seemed contrived to me. So I figured I’d keep the name and dispense with its baggage.

These hot pants were like chaps, which called to mind cowgirl images, which worked because she was wearing boots, too, and underneath the hot pants, jeans, which I could see when she turned away from me. And I knew from an artist friend of mine that there was a whole cowgirl thing going on, in some women’s circles anyway, cowgirls as heroic figures, mythic women, not your homey Dale Evans types at all, but wild, free women on horseback. I thought that contrived too, but I didn’t say anything to my friend, who had been quite clearly pleased with her cowgirl tee shirt.

But this early summer evening there were no cows anywhere around, nor any horses either. No men sitting on corral rails, perched like birds, swaying back and forth, spitting and pointing at the horses, no pickup trucks, lariats, no paddocks, just a bunch of people in a back parking lot at an urban cow college, an unpaved lot tucked in behind an abandoned building, where iron was being melted and poured into molds, molds made by artists, presumably including the woman in hot pants. I guessed the hot pants were hers because they seemed to fit, but I wondered whether she did this work often enough to own a pair.

I began to think of her as beautiful and desirable even before I saw her face, which at first had been hidden by her visor and hardhat. And if she were well-formed I didn’t know about that, because of the big apron she wore.

Since nobody was with me and nobody was talking to me – nobody recognized me, even though I was a professor at that college – I felt like a tourist sitting uncomfortably on one of those rails, watching the cowpokes cut horses out for the dudes. I had time to think about what I was seeing and try to decide why the hot pants woman attracted me so much. There was no urgency.

Maybe it was her carriage, the way she strode back and forth, visor up, visor down, shovel in hand, swinging, shovel leaned against some buckets. She moved with economy and purpose, everything about her saying I belong here.

Her gait was stiff but not strutting. I could see a little straightness to her legs, the way they hit the ground without bending much at the knee, as if she were carrying a load and was bracing against it by instinct. At the same time she seemed relaxed, and I decided it was the combination of stiffness and relaxation that appealed to me. It wasn’t a busy, scuttling gait, though that would have been appropriate, because clearly this woman had things to do. Purposeful, I thought, it’s the purposeful sense of her gait that’s attracting me so.

Standing back in the shadows, as I’ll always do if I have a choice, I looked around at the crowd. She was the only woman who wasn’t a spectator. Around the edge of the parking lot there were other women, but they were wearing big loose shorts, tee shirts, tank tops, even a couple of them in summer dresses. Nobody in hot pants.

All the other people who belonged there were men. Some of them did scuttle busily around, places to go, things to do, but others just stood, seemingly in charge of some task yet to be performed, or perhaps only waiting around in case they were needed. Most were older, though some were pony-tailed. Some were balding. Two were up high on the furnaces, standing on platforms, seemingly the elite, the skilled. One tended two furnaces, the other, one. They dumped scrap metal from pails, they poured on coke, and each had a long rod, near-molten at the tip, which he used to prod, poke, move the scrap iron around in the furnaces.

They could have been branding irons, I thought, seeing if I could extend my ranching metaphor, but that didn’t work. The guys were only working their rods in and out of the furnaces, not raking them hissing over hide. Sparks showered over everything as they thrust and heaved, maybe more than they needed to, but I thought that if I were up there in front of everybody, stirring molten metal, I’d shower a few extra sparks too.

I walked over and stood next to a couple of older men, probably sixty or seventy, hoping to overhear them, curious as to what they might say. I was afraid they might be going on about crazy students, and if they were, I thought I’d say something. I’d tell a lie. I’d say some of them were my students, and that might shut them up.

But they weren’t making fun. They were interested. “What are they using?” one asked the other, who answered, “Looks like they’ve got scraps in those pails.” And then they laughed, and I couldn’t detect any condescension in their laughter. They seemed avuncular, grandfatherly even, certainly with an air of mastery about them, an air of knowledge.

I figured them for ex-steelworkers, maybe old Bethlehem guys, come down to Buffalo to be near molten metal again. It had probably been their lives. Now, it merely amuses them that the scrap iron this crew will melt clanks into the furnaces tipped from joint compound pails, the sort of thing everybody else saves for fishing or draining the furnace boiler. But that’s all right because what they’re doing, those people out there, the hot pants woman included, what they’re doing is melting iron and getting ready to pour it, and that’s what the two old guys know.

And they were probably remembering how they did it, although the scale was different, the scale here in the back parking lot with one large and two small furnaces cooking. The scale was not what they were used to, these two old men who remembered the big basic oxygen furnaces, livid cauldrons showering sparks, pouring, then dribbling steel. Tons of it. Here, it was at least molten metal, and they remembered how it was.

There was a human scale to this pour, the furnaces not much bigger than a big man, maybe two big men together. They were right about the scraps because when a pail was dumped I saw sash weights. I thought the students must have poked around in basements for the weights, pieces of black pipe, broken hinges, the tenant’s wrought iron bench, the old lady’s skillet. I liked the idea that they’d had to grub around in basements in order to get their iron, that they hadn’t put in an order someplace, hadn’t phoned or faxed in an order for five hundred pounds of art-grade iron, suitable for melting. And so something someone had loved, something someone had used and broken, something that had been dealt with in a human way, was being melted and would be poured into molds to make sculpture.

So who were the artists? I couldn’t tell; there seemed no way to know. I hoped that the hot pants woman was the only working artist, because that would have made her wholly complete and infinitely desirable. I knew it couldn’t be true, but as I watched her I decided to imagine it so.

Then she was standing in front of the larger furnace with wearing huge gloves and a holding a large mallet. The men positioned a ladle and she struck out the bung. Opened a vein, spilling molten iron out into the ladle. Smoke. Sparks. Energy. I could hardly breathe for it all. She hammered the bung back in.

“Coming through! Hot ladle!”

Her voice was low-pitched, resonant, but not sweet. She led the way, shovel in hand, processing between lines of molds, some decorated, some plain, all with names written on them. Behind her two men carried the ladle, heavy with molten iron, stepped hurriedly yet carefully, so as not to trip and spill what they were carrying. At each mold she motioned them to stop, used her shovel to flip away slag from the lip, clearing the way. Then she tipped the ladle with her shovel and poured molten iron into the mold.

As I watched this, still in the shadows, I started thinking of her as the foreman, the boss. An artist with authority. Thinking about it excited me. I’d known a few strong women, but never one who controlled dangerous material with this easy grace. I demoted the two guys up on the furnaces to lesser roles, technicians perhaps, or functionaries, toilers at the margin of power. Men who knew their place, men whose roles were to make the liquid she would then control.

When the ladle was empty I left, turning suddenly and walking away, not wanting to see any more, not wanting to see her do anything else, not wanting to see her talk to anyone, take off those hot pants, relax with a drink of some kind. I doubted that I’d ever see her again – how would I recognize her anyway? I wanted her to remain wholly as she had been, potent, in charge.

Walking home I thought of the old days when I used to drive from Cambridge to Chicago and back. I always seemed to hit Buffalo at night, and I thought the city was the stinking hellish area between the highway and the lake.

After I moved to Buffalo I realized that what I’d thought was Buffalo all those years was really Lackawanna, where the steel mills were. And I remembered what I’d said every time I drove by: Jesus, I could never live in this stinking place.

On June 8th, 2004, Venus transited the sun for the first time since 1882. It’s going to happen again on June 5th-6th, 2012, and then not again until 2117. So don’t miss the next one.

I’m standing across the street from the nun’s house and wondering if the copper beech tree that people come from all over to admire has laid a branch or sheaf of leaves so much in the way that my wife, whom I’m about to leave (though she does not know this yet) won’t be able to see Venus transiting the sun in the short time she’s willing to devote to observation.

I got her to leave her coffee and makeup to see something she has little interest in except that she’s heard about it on the TV. But I know it will go down well with her friends if she can say she’s seen it, because they know she’s married to a guy who does stuff they never heard of.

They will shake their heads, Wow, how about that. You actually saw it.

I was surprised that she agreed, because seeing Venus transit the sun is only interesting if you know why it was important historically. Like in the eighteenth century. And I know she won’t ask me to explain it to her. She and her friends like to know the names of things, whatever they are, but that’s it. I’ve been coming to terms with being the person whose activities are noted, but are not worthy of inquiry, and the final result of that coming-to-terms-with is that I’m going to leave.

While I’m setting up the tripod and leveling my theodolite I realize I’m sorry I asked her to come out and look. I don’t know why I did it. Maybe setting up something to use as a defense when things get rough, as they’re going to?

Will I find myself saying, Well, I showed you the transit of Venus, which proves I am not a mean and nasty man?

I haven’t had my theodolite out of its case in years because there’s no work for it, except once I used it to level a brick patio. Talk about overkill. In the old days I shot the sun with it; long before GPS I did latitude and longitude by measuring the sun’s altitude and azimuth at noon, looking through the darkgreen sunfilter. I’m remembering the first time I screwed it to the eyepiece and wondered if I should test it first, realized what the hell could I test it on except the sun, and quickly swung the theodolite around and up and looked. And didn’t burn out my retina, and saw the sun’s disk moving. Except of course it wasn’t actually moving, as it won’t actually be moving this morning, although Venus will be.

She knows my theodolite is very old and is probably wondering if there’s any danger. She’s got to be thinking that if I look first she should be OK, unless I shut my eye, meaning to trick her into burning hers out. I know how she thinks: be sure he looks first.

I’m thinking about how Captain Cook, James Cook, sailed to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus on June 3rd, 1769, so that astronomers could work out how far it was to the sun. Other telescopes would be looking from Europe. Parallax. It was all about parallax.

In the modern vernacular, it was a ballsy thing Cook did: sail from England into 17 degrees South, 149 degrees West counting on clear skies and a solid viewing platform on the precise day and time he needed them. Joseph Banks drew observing plans marked with the appropriate words Zenith and Nadir.

Cook and Green observed the exterior ingress to the sun’s limb at 9 hours 21 minutes local time, and exterior egress at 15 hours 29 minutes, also local time. This is only the third transit of Venus since then. I know all this because I looked it up last night. I liked encountering new usages of ingress and egress. I knew the technical usage of zenith but not of nadir, a fine coincidence considering that my nadir appears to be now, local time, and my exterior egress will probably be next month, also local time.

I look through the eyepiece at the sun, which is not obscured by the copper beech, and as usual do not burn out my retina. The sun’s disk nearly fills the field of view. I force myself to scan the whole field looking for a dark spot moving, which is hard, because the sun itself is moving relative to all the dust and dirt, the spidery fungus, inside the theodolite.

But it’s all good. It feels like the old days. I’m juggling three levels of perception, four if I count that the eyepiece is an inverting one. But since I don’t know whether Venus is transiting the sun’s top or bottom, I don’t have to worry about inversion. The sun looks the same right side up or upside down. Ah, slow movement. That’s it.

“Here,” I say, stepping away, “Go ahead and look. It’s that little dot towards the top, which is really the bottom.”

She says, “What?”

I say, “It’s an inverting eyepiece.”

She says, “What the hell is that?”

“Upside down,” I say, “Nevermind, just look for the little black dot moving.”

“Jesus,” she says, “I have to go to work. You said this would be quick and there are who knows how many little black dots.”

“Yes, but only one is moving.”

“I don’t see it. What a waste of time. I’ll catch it on TV tonight, they probably have a better whatever than this one.”

“Fine.”

I pick up the theodolite and its heavy tripod and pack it down the corner where there’s a better view. While I’m setting up again her car hisses by. I don’t wave.

Here it’s good, a clear sightline. I should have come here first, but the lure of looking for Venus up the nun’s passageway was too great.

All in focus again, very nice, the dot’s moving. Venus. I step away from the theodolite to take in the entire scene. Has anybody in the entire history of the world ever observed the transit of Venus on a sidewalk before a famous Frank Lloyd Wright house? No. Surely no. Might anyone care? Again no, and no one except me cares about the nun’s passage business either.

A woman walking her dog comes up the street and gives me a quizzical look, which is reasonable since presumably she’s not used to seeing a guy out at 7 AM standing at a painted wooden tripod looking towards the sun through what only sort of looks like a telescope.

“Transit of Venus,” I say, “If you’d like to look you may. It’s quite safe. And it’s transiting the top it looks like, but it’s really the lower part of the sun because this has an inverting eyepiece.”

“Oh,” she says, “So maybe I should stand on my head to look.”

We laugh. The dog barks.

I wonder who she is. She’s pretty and has no wedding band but I don’t hold onto that thought because I can feel myself and my theodolite already in motion in my own great Southern Ocean, tacking, sailing away from nuns, copper beech, corner, wife.

A couple of years ago, Stefan sent me a short piece about a Cairo taxi ride, which made me remember my Borgward, and I sketched out this one. I never did anything with it. But now that everybody’s getting into Stefan’s car piece, and he referred to the Cairo Puegeot 504 trip, well . . . .

Nineteen Sixty-four. I was new in Cambridge, fresh from Portola Valley, California, where the mellow hippie thing was not really rock n rolling yet but was beginning and I was on its fringes.

The guy across the street from me and Ruth and Lykos the wolf had a 3-wheeled Morgan which from the front looked like a Harley-Davidson V-Twin engaging in a weird sex act with a MG-TC.

I was bringing Massachusetts my laid-back California set of expectations, and a red Borgward Isabella TS, which my father had gotten as a deal-sweetener when he bought a large amount of commercial laundry equipment in Hilo, Hawai’i.

He never liked the Borgward, so he put it on a boat and shipped it to me, and I never liked it too much either, but it was much better than the Fiat 600 it replaced, although the Fiat had a Stebro exhaust and a competition racing harness.

One time I drove that Fiat from Grand Island, Nebraska to Schenectady, NY thirty-eight hours nonstop, drafting semis, fueled by bad coffee, Lucky Strikes, and a small handful of Dexedrine spansules. Early in one morning I got lost in Warren, Ohio. That was exciting.

The Isabella was a better ride. It had a column-mounted four-speed shift, very unusual, and an overhead valve engine with hemispherical combustion chambers, a three-barrel carburetor, and independent rear suspension, which was a rarity in those days. The seats reclined. It seemed a very serious German car to me, something that should have flag holders on the front fenders.

I left the Borgward parked near Harvard Square and we took off in the rental agent’s Karmann-Ghia. I thought they were profoundly ugly vehicles and cripplingly gendered. If there ever was a girly car, the Karmann-Ghia was it.

True, it didn’t have a sissy name like “Isabella.”

Years later I tooled around Honolulu with an archaeologist in his Datsun Fairlady, another too-soft name for what was in fact an excellent sports car.

Americans love those fierce names like Mustang, Eagle, Charger, Hornet. OK, maybe not Skylark. But Isabella, Fairlady, and lately I’ve been noticing Hyundai Sonatas. Sonata? Ford Fugue coming up. Chevrolet Canon. Lexus Lullaby. Toyota Tenebrae.

The Borgward had a ribbon speedometer which broke on the way to Cambridge. I had it fixed in Buffalo, at a speedometer place that was still in business when I moved there 15 years later, having in the meantime completed graduate school and exchanged the red Borgward for a red BMW 1800TI, which had a pair of two-barrel Solex 40PHH carbs that generated awesome throaty intake noise. The TI cost me $3,300 new.


One car magazine review called the TI a Q ship. That was before I heard anybody talk about Q cars. It took me 42 years to work “Q ship” into something I wrote. The speedometer place disappeared, the TI broke a series of rings, so I traded it to a couple of Yemenites in Lackawanna for a pretty little red Injelas rug, which has lasted longer than it did.

I wasn’t especially mellow on that 1964 day in Cambridge because I was worried about finding an apartment quickly before I ran out of motel money, not to mention nervous about renting a place in a town I didn’t know at all. Were there any cool neighborhoods? How would I know?

The rental agent drove down Mass Avenue towards Central Square and cut off a driver so he could get to the curb and park. It didn’t seem so bad to me, but the guy driving the other car whipped up around us, blocking traffic, leaned over, rolled down his window and started screaming, Your fucking foreign cars! Your VWs!

I was startled but impressed. Evidently in Cambridge even the assholes knew that the Karmann-Ghia was built on a VW chassis.

I looked at my guy and said, “Is this what’s it’s like here?”

He said, “Yes, and it’s worse if you drive a foreign car.”

Now that I’m thinking about it, I’d bet VW was the only foreign car name the asshole knew. He just got lucky.

Tsunami 2010

By Don Mitchell

Memoir

The great Chilean earthquake of 27 February triggered tsunami warnings across the Pacific. I wrote about my experiences in the 1960 tsunami here on TNB, never imagining that I’d be writing a companion piece only a few months later. While working on my posting, it occurred to me that because many people have Google Earth on their computers, I should specify enough place and street names so that readers can get a look at where I’ve been today. Here’s how my tsunami day went.

6 AM. Sirens. I’m lying awake, ready to get up, drink some coffee, go downtown and run 10k along the bay front, where it’s flat.The sirens start, and my first thought is – tsunami! Then I wonder about it. Maybe somebody mis-programmed the monthly test? But no, they keep wailing. So I get up, and because I haven’t bothered dragging the old boom box down from the closet shelf, and there’s no regular radio in the house, I go to my computer.  Indeed, yes. Those are tsunami sirens, so I go in and wake Ruth. She wears earplugs. She’s startled.

6:15. I say, You make the coffee, and I’ll go fill up the Quest. I made a couple of runs to The Dump yesterday, and the fuel low light went on. I didn’t bother getting gas because I didn’t have my wallet.

6:20. Oh. I’m not the only one who needs gas. At the Union 76, the line stretches half a mile. Oh. I’ll wait it out.

6:25. On Hawai’i Public Radio, the Saturday morning host, who usually plays modern music, is doing the tsunami warning. In the background he’s playing John Adams’ “Shaker Loops.” Excellent choice – agitated and rousing, but not ominous.

6:30. Inching along. For the first time, I hear the Emergency Broadcast System alert squawks followed by an actual message. Not “This is a test . . . .”  Nope. A Hawai’i County Civil Defense person comes on with the detailed warning.

6:35. I’m in front of the Kaumana Fire House. I don’t want to stop in front of the engines, so I leave a gap. Oh! Somebody drives along and cuts in in front of me. This is Manhattan Bridge behavior. Somebody’s really worried. Never mind. If he doesn’t want to act in the Hawaiian way, I will. I don’t give him the stink eye.

7:00. Sirens again.

7:15. Switching between stations, I note that not every announcer knows what a “fathom” is. The official recommendation is that vessels go offshore to where the depth is “100 fathoms,” so some are saying “600 feet,” which is correct, and others “600 fathoms,” doing the X6 thing but forgetting to change the unit. Some feet and meter differences, too. One source says 7 feet expected, another says 4 meters. That’s a significant difference.

7:20. I fill up.

7:25. Back home. I gather up all the loose water bottles in the car. Might as well fill them, too. For sure, the power’s going out and I can’t remember whether the water flows when the power’s out.

7:30. A few email messages in from the Mainland. My sister reminds me not to be an idiot as I was in 1960. I respond that I’m 50 years older and most likely wiser.

7:59. I get out a general email reminding people who haven’t been at my house on Wailuku Drive in Pi’ihonua that it’s not near the shore. I put in a link to my TNB tsunami piece. I include Greg and Matt in the email: Matt because he’s lived in Hawai’i, and because I loved his Katrina piece, and Greg because I’ve been commiserating with him about the snow.

8:00. Sirens again.

8:20. Irving calls from the mainland. “Don’t go down to that bridge,” he says. We talk about snow.

8:40. I remember that my trailer can haul anything, not just waste. So I call my friend Alan at Alan’s Art and Antiques in case he needs help moving his stuff. Alan’s store is on the waterfront. He says No, I’m just taking a few things. And he reminds me that the 1957 Hilo Intermediate School yearbook that I haven’t picked up is at his house. So it’s safe, he says. I call Dragon Mama, Mrs. Suzuki, in case she needs help. She has a tatami, futon, and cloth place, also on the waterfront. A lot of our furniture came from her shop. She says No, we’re going to take a chance. She’s putting everything on the higher shelves and can tolerate a few feet of water in the store.

9:00. I call Carolyn. Does she know anybody who needs hauling help? It’s getting late, but I can hitch up quickly. No, she doesn’t. She lives up near the Volcano.

9:30. It’s a beautiful day. Sunny and cool. This is good, because if it gets bad down there, it’ll be easier for the workers.

9:35. I start thinking about where to go to watch. Charge the camera batteries. Charge the cell phones.

9:40. The tsunami ETA is 11:20. It’s nice when a pending disaster has a fairly precise schedule.

9:44. I start typing this. How did I forget about TNB? I need to mind my priorities. In a while I’ll drive down to town and see about a safe vantage point.

9:46. I hear that all water’s been shut off along coastal zones, so the tsunami can’t drive salt water and sewage into the system. I wonder if they did that in 1960?

10:00. Sirens again. It is a different sequence, I think. Longer. I head for town. Sailboats out beyond the breakwater. It’s a beautiful scene, like a regatta. But they’re fleeing to 100 fathom water. Most of the good vantage spots are taken. People have lawn chairs and even canopies in some of the best spots. I drive by the old Main Fire Station, where I went early in the morning in May 1960 to start trying to rescue people. Coming home, I drive past the old Hospital, which is now the County Annex. I feel it pulling me. From the road, I can see the old ambulance entrance. That’s where we took the dead bodies.

10:05. Ruth is on the phone talking to a friend in California. I feel a surge of irritation. A tsunami is coming! The ordinary world will be shaken. I immediately realize how ridiculous my feeling is. We’re in no danger at all.

10:10. A new ETA: 11:04. And no one will see it coming. On the Mainland, when there’s a winter storm or lake effect warning, I get the weather radar on my screen and see the trouble forming. See it moving. But this thing’s different. It’s out there, a wave front moving through deep water, not showing itself. For all that we’ve had hours of warning, when it does arrive, it’s going to leap up suddenly.

10:15. I stand on the porch, thinking. I go down to the van and open the hatch. Bungees and the tarp from my last dump run. I decide to leave them there. Somebody might need them. I walk into my shop and pick up my heavy ax. Should I put it in the van, just in case I have to do rescue work? I already have my biggest Gerber knife in my pocket, for the same reason. No, that’s silly. This isn’t 1960. Other people are ready to handle these things. And yet . . . I put the ax in the van. I keep my knife in my pocket. I feel simultaneously  well-prepared and silly.

10:30. Time to go. I tell Ruth she should wear sneakers, just in case we have to walk in wreckage. Is that going to happen? No. I put on my red Nike trail running shoes. Then I feel stupid, because I’m also wearing a red t-shirt. I hate thinking that anybody might think I chose my red shoes to go with my red shirt. I get in the car, Mister Red Man.

10:32. I run back inside to shut down all the computers. There could be a power surge, or the power could go out and the batteries run down before we get back.

10:35. Heading down the hill. I say to Ruth, If it happens, you’ll never forget what you’ll see. It’s a mighty force. I also use the word “inexorable,” which is a word I rarely use, but it’s the right word. The sea just keeps on coming at you. I want her to see it, so we can share it. She only knows about 1960 from my memories.

10:38. I’m thinking that Haili Street might be the best spot. The 1960 tsunami was also spawned in Chile, and it crashed into the Hamakua coast, out past Honoli’i, and then was reflected straight into Hilo Bay. Or at least that was the reconstruction – it was 1 AM that time, and so nobody actually saw it happen. Today, if this tsunami barrels at us out of the same direction, I’d like to see that reflection for myself. But from Haili St, we can’t see Honoli’i.

10:45. I drive down a little side street that parallels Haili, but I don’t grab a space for a while.  I find a parking place on Kapiolani. OK, it’s a good place, Honoli’i or no Honoli’i.

10:48. I tell Ruth, Let’s walk farther down towards the shore. We might be able to see out towards Honoli’i. We walk. The Water Department guys are driving around in their trucks. We get down where I hoped it might be good, but it’s not. Time to go back up the hill. I say, we might as well walk over to Waianuenue and go back up that way. We still have time. Ten minutes to go.

10:56. We’re walking back up Waianuenue, past my old elementary school. The sidewalks are crowded. More lawn chairs. I catch my toe on a sidewalk slab and stumble. A woman says, Don’t get hurt up here! I laugh. She asks, What’s it like down there? I say, Oh, it’s OK except the water’s boiling and it’s full of poisonous snakes. She laughs. Everybody laughs. I feel like a dork. I am a dork. This is surreal. Ruth and I are worried about getting back to Haili St in time for the show which, we know, starts at 11:04.

10:58. We get to the van. I whip a quick U-turn and get over to Haili St. There’s a place!

11:00. We walk up to where the view’s pretty good. Lots of people. There’s a guy wearing a “Harbor Security” patch. I wonder why he’s not down at the harbor, but I don’t say anything except that I’m a 1960 survivor. We talk about how teenagers believe they’re immortal.

11:02. Lots of sailing boats and some larger craft out past the breakwater. I’d be farther out, if I had a boat. I think I see a whale, but I’m not sure so I don’t say anything. But I start thinking about it. Will the whale be surprised? Then I think, No, probably there’s some acoustic energy preceding the wave. I don’t like thinking about a humpback being lifted over the breakwater and crashing into the shops along Kamehameha Avenue. But if it happens, I’ll get there with my camera somehow. It would be a great shot.

11:04. Show time! But there’s nothing. Helicopters – four of them, and now five, when they’re joined by a large Army chopper, down from the Pohakuloa Training Area. A Coast Guard C-130 rescue plane is circling, circling.

11:15. Nothing. There’s a bunch of teenagers sitting on a truck. I can’t resist, so I go over and tell them that when I was their age, I was down on the Wailuku bridge, and almost died. They’re impressed. What did you think? one asks. I’m going to fucking die! I say. They laugh. They’ll never fucking die.

11:20. Nothing, except I think one reef by the breakwater is exposed. I call to the kids, Look at the reef, it’s coming. I shape my voice to sound ominous. It doesn’t come. They are polite.

11:25. Nothing, except I realize that I’m leaning on a little pickup truck with an “Eddie Would Go” bumper sticker. This is very amusing, so I photograph Ruth and the Eddie Would Go sticker. Eddie Aikau was a famous big-wave surfer and lifeguard, who died in the Molokai Channel going for help when the double canoe Hokule’a overturned. I didn’t know Eddie but I did know somebody who sailed on Hokule’a.

11:40. Nothing. It’s hot. Maybe some other reefs are showing, maybe not. I can just barely see the tip of the breakwater, and it seems choppy there, as if something’s churning.

11:45. Nothing. I start talking to the woman whose house we’re in front of. Her family lost their fishing boat in 1960. We talk about 1960. She’s clearly pleased that nothing has happened. I’m not as pleased as she is. I admit this to myself. I want a 1960 replay except in daylight and with only a little destruction and nobody dead. I want to see it happening and not be terrified when I do.

11:55. Time to go. And yet . . . I can’t go home. So I head for Kaiwiki, where there’s a panoramic view of the bay. To get there, we drive across one of the Wailuku River bridges upstream from the bridge I was on. It’s packed with people. In 1960, people on this bridge saw me and my friends clinging to the bridge. They didn’t know who we were. In 2007 I ran into somebody in Buffalo whose father had been on that bridge, watching. He sent me an email: So you were one of those idiots.

12:10. Up to Kaiwiki. More spectators. Somebody in an old red Nissan Pathfinder has driven right out into the middle of an agricultural field. For a better view? It doesn’t seem better to me. We stay there a while. Nothing happening.

12:30. Down the hill. I’ll try Wainaku, near Alae Cemetery. Up Kulana Kea road with its No Trespassing signs, and a clump of orange cones that must have been strung out across the road this morning. Lots of cars. There are many giant raised-up pickups. I wish I had one to use today. Great view. I see serious churning in the bay, clearly a big outflow past the breakwater. And the waves against the breakwater seem more massive and synchronized than usual.

12:40. My son calls from the Adirondacks. Snow. Bad cell service. He didn’t know. He just saw my email on his iPhone. It’s all over, I tell him.

12:57. The whale breaches. So it was a whale. I keep my finger on the shutter and when it breaches again, I get it. Why don’t I have a huge telephoto? If I drop the whale image into my TNB piece, it’s going to be pixellated. People will laugh. The bay’s beautiful, but nothing’s happening.

1:00. Head home.

1:15. My stepson calls. What’s happening, I just saw it on the news. Well, it was nothing, and now it’s over.

1:20. Home. A bunch of emails, including one from Matt, who wishes the tsunami to pass like a flowing stream rather than a raging torrent. There’s one from Greg, who has snow and won’t have power until Tuesday. Those are worse circumstances than mine would have been, even if the tsunami had lived up to its billing.

1:30. How to make sense of the day? I can’t. It’s too complicated, emotionally. It’s wrong to feel disappointment because a natural disaster didn’t live up to expectations. It was so scheduled, and I admired that. The warning system, the computer models. The emergency preparations were precise and well-executed. Everything worked as it was supposed to. At Civil Defense they must be celebrating, and they should be. And yet I feel certain that among them, there are some who are disappointed that they will have very little post-tsunami work to do.

2:00. Well, for excitement I can thin my banana patch and take a load to the dump. I put the ax back in the shop. I get my machete and fell a couple of dozen bananas, and load the heavy green-black trunks, wetting myself with their juices. It’s the only water that’s hit me today. I hitch up the trailer and head down the hill for The Dump.

2:15. Oh, the Dump is closed today.


The Dump

By Don Mitchell

Memoir

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time at The County of Hawai’i South Hilo Solid Waste Disposal Site, which is usually just called The Dump. I’ve written about The Dump in I Don’t Brake for Mongoose and Badass Pink Chevy .

We were driving from the airport to the place Ahuimanu, which in Hawaiian means A Gathering of Birds, where there was to be a feast of welcome for my young son. I had brought him back from the Mainland along with my second wife, his stepmother, a woman who had come to hate him.

We drove through a tunnel under Nu’uanu Pali, where in 1790 Kamehameha the Great’s warriors forced Kalanikupule’s warriors over the pali, which means cliff or precipice. Nu’uanu is where that particular pali is.

I started thinking about Hilina Pali, which is over on the Big Island where I live. It’s near Kilauea volcano, and there are feral goats. In a little fenced patch of land about as big as your living room there is a kind of plant called ma’oloa enclosed there against the goats. That little place is where most of the ma’oloa that are alive in the world are hanging on and will continue to hang on if the goats don’t breach the fence and eat them.

At the bottom of Hilina Pali is the place Halape, where back on November 29th, 1975, there was an earthquake and a local tsunami in the night. A man I knew was camping there and the sea took him.

When we came out of the tunnel through Nu’uanu Pali, I thought about warriors leaping, falling, falling onto the roadbed, though in 1790 when they struck, it would have been forest.

I made the left turn and drove past the Japanese cemetery with its famous koi ponds, which are a notable tourist attraction, and then I drove into a residential district near Kaneohe.

I stopped at a traffic signal and I saw a hand-lettered sign taped to the pole. It said “FOR SALE: BABY CLOTHES – ULUA POLES” and I started thinking about that, rather than worrying about bad things that might happen at Ahuimanu, which which is what I had been doing.

Ulua are large strong-fighting ocean fish that you can catch from the shore if you’re willing to perch on rocks and cast out and wait. It is not like surf casting along the Atlantic, where you stand on a sandy beach and heave out over the waves, and sometimes can’t even see past the surf.

 

With ulua fishing you’re up on lava rocks with waves below, and if you aren’t watching and don’t listen carefully you might not notice that the sea has gone silent, which can mean it’s about to rise suddenly and take you.

I wondered about the combination of baby clothes and fishing poles on the sign.

 

I imagined that there was this young man who was new at the father business and a little weary of it, so when his wife said she was going to Honolulu to shop, he said he would take the baby for fresh air. When she drove away he went to their garage and chose a pole, and went to their freezer and got aku belly for bait. He wanted a day on the rocks and a nice ulua for them to eat, but he knew if he said he was going fishing she would never let him take the baby.

He put the car seat beside him on the rocks while he fished, and his son started to cry and he turned to see why and he stopped paying attention.

Oh they rose up and were carried down like the warriors, but more slowly, and they didn’t smash on impact, but sank beneath the surf. The car seat bobbed up, and he tried to get to it, but the waves dashed them against lava and they both died.

And I imagined that now the mother wanted to get rid of everything that reminded her, so she made the sign and was waiting and hoping someone would take the clothes and poles soon and it would be finished.

 

The house at Ahuimanu is tucked up close under the pali. There are no waterfalls when it isn’t raining, but a dozen or more appear when it rains hard. One falls from so high on the pali that wind dissipates the water long before it reaches the valley floor.

My aunt called that one The Crooked Straight and when it floated against the pali she would stop what she was doing and sing from Handel’s Messiah. She had a beautiful voice and a sweet nature, but she had died by the time I saw the sign on my way to Ahuimanu and her house below the waterfalls.

At Ahuimanu my uncle was giving a welcoming speech in Hawaiian when my wife rose up and struck my little boy in front of the guests, because he was not paying attention the way she thought he should have been. I was not quick enough to stop her, but I took my son in my arms to make him safe, and soon after we got back to the Mainland I threw her out.

She went down to North Carolina and then I divorced her. I don’t know where she is now.

Everything she left behind, I sold.


December 25 marks a milestone at The Nervous Breakdown: the fortieth day of the existence of TNB 3.0. If the revamped site were the Ark, the dove would fly back with an olive leaf in its mouth. Or a sample from the bag of Jessica Blau’s “lemons.” Or a beanie Zoë Brock found on the side of the road in Frisco. Or…but you get the idea.

I feel like this momentous occasion should be commemorated by something other than the exchange of presents and spiked eggnog. Perhaps Megan DiLullo can organize a podcast? Or, better yet, a photo montage of TNBers dressed like Bond girls? (An editorial suggestion for Megan and Erika: next time, get the girls to wear the bikinis).

It’s been a month in which our contributors have displayed feats of tremendous bravery: David Wills swam with sharks. Matt Baldwin hiked with bear. Simon Smithson jumped off a tall building. Ben Loory stole money from Demi Moore. Don Mitchell wore tighty-whities.

J.E. Fishman is serializing his novel, Cadaver Blues. Between Cadaver and Cactus City, there’s a lot of blues going on at TNB. I hope 2010 is a happier year for everyone.

Richard Cox wrote a cool piece about the hoopla surrounded the Tiger Woods imbroglio, which—because we are above it here on this blog—somehow descended into a debate about the literary merits of Jonathan Franzen. The Corrections, it appears, refers to what Woods did to his swing a few years back.

Our Fearless Leader returned from blog post exile, and I think I speak for all of us when I say, Welcome back, Brad Listi. His piece, “You Lost Me At Hello,” was treated like the release of Chinese Democracy—top of the charts, top of the comment numbers—the only difference being that Brad’s post is good.

Someone named Darian Arky started writing for us from his redoubt in Prague. According to his dossier, he works for the State Department. How naïve do you think we are, man? I’ve read enough James Ellroy books to know that if a dude claims to work for the State Department, he’s really out there gathering intelligence, handling sources, and slipping Cold Ethyl into the Chivas of enemies of the state. I’m not sure what Arky is up to—other than contributing great pieces and leaving lots of comments on everyone else’s—but I find it curious that as soon as he shows up, Justin Benton vanishes.

Whether or not Darian Arky is an actual person, Darian Arky is a cool name. That seems to be a criterion for letting new writers on the site. Check out these new peeps: Gwenda Bond, Doreen Orion, Nathaniel Missildine, and Jeffrey Pillow all join Autumn Kindelspire, Slade Ham, and Will Entrekin in the Cool Name Hall of Fame.

(Alison Aucoin is a cool name, too, except that I have no idea how to pronounce it. Oh-KWAN? OH-cun? Oh-CYOON? Alison, please enlighten us).

The forty days have included lots of great stuff—if I neglected to mention you specifically, it’s not because I don’t like you, but because my daughter is yelling at me from downstairs to give her gum, so my attentions are diverted—but I’ve especially enjoyed the content from LitPark and 3G1B and WordHustler, as well as the fact that my kids routinely appear on View From Your Phone.

My favorite piece of the first forty days, however—other than my own self-interview, of course—is the trilogy submitted by Gina Frangello about her father. A must-read, it says here.

Happy holidays, folks. May 2010 be the year in which all your dreams come true…and the year in which we drop the idiotic “two-thousand” business and start saying “twenty-ten.”

I performed this piece at the TNB Literary Experience in December 2009. It’s available on YouTube at: Is There Really a Hawaiian Word for Christmas?

 

I told Kimberly my title would be “Deconstructing Mele Kalikimaka,” because I thought if I didn’t have an intellectual-sounding title nobody would pay any attention.

Kimberly said, “Don’t worry. They’ll all be drunk or stoned or busy hitting on each other, and won’t pay attention anyway.”

“I get it,” I said, “like when I was teaching night school.”

 

Barack Obama and I were born and raised in the same far-away exotic foreign land.

Kenya!

All right, Hawai’i.

Obama and I shared many Christmas traditions. For example, enduring endless repetitions of Bing Crosby’s “Mele Kalikimaka.” On the radio! In the stores! White Christmas was bad enough, but that was a Mainland thing so that didn’t matter.

We never had white Christmases.

But we did have Hawaiian words, and we knew which were traditional words and which were transliterations, and a song built on a not really-Hawaiian phrase for Christmas, sung by a Mainland guy with full orchestra . . . and the Andrews Sisters . . . was an insult.

 

Transliteration. Deconstruction. Actually I’m going to do a contextualization, which is more accessible. I know agile minds out there are already all over Mele Kalikimaka’s historical specificity, hermaneutically of course, and while considering bilateral symmetry and propositional ramification they are hoping, indeed praying, that I won’t inappropriately conjugate anything or descend into misplaced concreteness – meaning that if I do a Bing Crosby imitation I’ll be in deep shit.

But I will recite the words.

Mele Kalikimaka is the thing to say,
On a bright Hawaiian Christmas Day,
That’s the island greeting that we send to you
From the land where palm trees sway,
Here we know that Christmas will be green and bright,
The sun to shine by day and all the stars at night,
Mele Kalikimaka is Hawaii’s way
To say “Merry Christmas to you.”

Had enough?

 

So . . . is Mele Kalikimaka really the Hawaiian way to say Merry Christmas? That depends on what you mean by Hawaiian.

If “ancient Hawaiian,” no. They didn’t have Christmas. The first they heard about it was from the gangs of Pacific rogues who fell upon Hawai’i in the early nineteenth century – missionaries, who told them to worship Christ, and sea captains, whalers, and traders, who taught them what to do on Christmas.

It could have gone like this:

The missionary says, “Yes, on Christmas we celebrate the birth of our saviour Jesus Christ with prayers and a church service.”

“Uh-huh,” the Hawaiians say.

The whaler says, “What we do is cut down a big tree, bring it inside the house, put candles on it, say Merry Christmas, light them, get drunk, eat, keep drinking and eating and saying Merry Christmas until we pass out.”

“Sounds like a plan!” the Hawaiians say. “But saying that holiday’s name is rough . . . we don’t use C or R or S in our language. So . . . Merry, Mele, yes, that’s easy, but Ka-ri, Ka-li, uh . . . how about Kalikimaka?”

“Close enough,” the whaler says, “when you’re drunk it won’t matter.”

 

So . . . Mele Kalikimaka! Merry Christmas! Hawaiian* or not Hawaiian?

Let me go to my Pukui-Elbert Hawaiian-English dictionary.

Mele, here it is, meaning “song, or chant.” Umm.

Kalikimaka, yes, here it is, “Christmas.”

All right, it means “Christmas song or chant.”

 

“Christmas song or chant is Hawaii’s way

to say Merry Christmas to you.”

Hmmm. Nah.

 

Now in English we can unpack Christmas into “Christ” and “mass,” so let’s take Kalikimaka apart too.

kaliki, corset

maka, beloved one

 

Here we go:

Chant for a beloved corset is Hawaii’s way….”

I don’t think so.

 

Hawaiian Christmas, as we have learned, is green and bright. This is unlike, for example, Christmas in Biloxi, Mississippi, but let’s paddle on past that.

To properly celebrate Christmas you need a tree.

Eighteenth century Hawai’i, the most remote islands on earth, had no pines. But Norfolk Island, a British penal colony down towards Australia, did. The British brought them to Hawai’i, where they flourished – the pines, not the convicts.

Each year our family had to make a decision. Should we get a local Christmas tree, that would be a Penal tree, or should we get a Mainland tree, that would be a Douglas fir, but everybody called them Mainland Christmas trees. They were superior to Penal trees because, well, they were from the Mainland.

I went college on the Mainland. Freshman year, Introduction to Botany, the professor was showing slides of evergreens. He put up a Douglas fir.

“Who knows this one?”

“It’s a Mainland Christmas tree?”

 

Ah . . . the Mainland. That distant paradise across the Pacific, where everything was better.

They had TV, but we didn’t. They had FM radio, and we had AM. They had places for kids to get into trouble . . . but so did we.

Weekend nights at the shore were like anywhere – parked cars, kids smoking, drinking, making out, listening to the radio. But we’d be trying to pull in Mainland stations, twenty-five hundred, three thousand miles away. The farther, the better. KGO, San Francisco was good, KSL Salt Lake was better, and one night a kid with a hopped-up car radio started yelling that he had WLS Chicago. We got out of our cars and clustered around, listening.

Our little station played the same songs, but they sounded better coming from the Mainland. At Christmastime, a little static and some fade improved even Mele Kalikimaka.

I was making out with Leilani one night, with San Francisco pounding in.

“Get Salt Lake,” she said, “and I’ll take off my bra.”

 

But that was teen life. Small-kid time was harder. One Christmas we were decorating our Penal tree with the radio on and Bing was singing away. For the first time, I paid attention to the bit about the sun and stars. It was frightening. Where had I gone wrong? Was the Mainland a stranger place than I thought?

“Mom,” I said, “Mom! You know the song? Is here the only place where the sun shines by day and all the stars at night?”

 

One Christmas I asked the minister down at the First Foreign Church if Kalikimaka really meant Christmas.

He looked at me. “That’s the Hawaiian word for Christmas, son.”

I said, “But the Hawaiian word for Christ is Kristo, and since you told us we should put Christ back in Christmas, shouldn’t it be Kristomaka?”

He looked at me.

I said, “Because then Mele Kristomaka would mean Chant About Beloved Christ.”

He kept looking at me.

“Beloved Christ . . . right?” I said.

Finally he said, “Son, we’re Protestants. We don’t chant.”

 

 

*Hawaiian is a living language, and of course it has transliterations, and words with multiple meanings, as do all languages. I plead guilty to cherry-picking meanings. Please don’t mistake the little games I’m playing with Hawaiian words for legitimate linguistics work. Speakers of Hawaiian know that, for example, the word I’ve rendered as mele has several different pronunciations, and each has a different meaning. Because this is a humorous piece and meant to be spoken, I haven’t used proper orthography. My uncle, the late Donald Kilolani Mitchell of Kam Schools, would probably be annoyed, and the late Mary Kawena Pukui, whom I knew as a boy, would probably gently scold me. E kala mai ia’u!


Tighty Whities

By Don Mitchell

Humor

Do your your underpants express the you you hope they do? What about the locker room or the doctor’s office or when they’re sitting on the chair for the body worker to see (unless you’ve hidden them under your clothes, which is fairly nuts . . . here she’s going to be handling your naked body but no way, no way can she see your underpants) or like if you’re undressing for the first time in front of a lover. Can there be situations in which your underpants make things go very very wrong? Sure. I’ll tell you about it.

Last winter I was visiting some people I know, free spirits, California. I was complaining that I didn’t have enough briefs for a long trip because I buy them so rarely the stores never have the same kind the next time I need some, and I don’t know whether the new kind’s going to work for me. I have only a little vanity but I do have some, and I like to see if what I’m buying looks stupid, like a Speedo on a fat Russian at a Black Sea beach. And they won’t let you try them on, and I buy 3 packs, to save a few bucks, so that’s a lot of money wasted if I don’t like them. It’s overwhelming, so I put off going, and then I get stuck without . . . .

So I’m complaining about my underpant holdings out there in Fallbrook, California, where probably nobody wears underpants anyway. Fallbrook, California is the Southern California headquarters of the Aryan Nation. My friend Lake told me that they picketed one of the banks, something about illegal immigrants, surprise surprise, but nobody paid any attention to them.  I figure if there’s a town full of ex-military people spilled out from Camp Pendleton and when the Aryan Nation demonstrates nobody pays any attention, well, that most likely is a place where nobody wears underpants.

But I was wrong.

Out in Fallbrook my friend Rob listened to me complain, went to his bedroom, and came back with some tighty whities. He said, “Here, take these since you’re short.”

Short?

He said, “Notice the logo,” which I had noticed and pegged as some silly hangover from those fashion days when clothing had large model and serial numbers printed on it. Dude! My shirt has a lower serial number than yours!

So these underpants are marked 2(x)ist. And?

Rob said that meant they were sized for guys with big dicks.

I said, “Oh great, I wear these into the locker room and other guys say, ‘Hey check out asshole over there, guy wants us to know he’s got a big one.’”

I took them anyway, hoping that not many people knew that secret code, except maybe for the Aryan Nation guys. Rob gave me one 3-pack, and then two more, so I ended up with three 3-packs — that’s nine white Y-fronts.

Upside is that now my underwear drawer is nicely integrated. My black Calvins and my white 2(x)ists.

But the downside is huge. Forget about the dick advertisement.

The problem is that they’re white Y-fronts. When all my black briefs are dirty and I put on the white jobs, I become my father. I become my 95 year old uncle in his baggy tighty whiteys standing there talking to a doctor about his hernia. I become every limp old dude out there, me in my white Y-fronts, just like them.

What if somebody sees them? One time I was going running and it was chilly so I didn’t wear my shorts-with-liner, which meant I had to wear underpants with my lightweight tights. I had nothing else but the 2(x)ists and I thought, Jesus Christ, what if I get hit by a car and have to go to the emergency room and I’m unconscious?

And the ER doc says to the nurse, “So how old you think this guy is?”

And she says, “I’d say 70 or 80 from those loose tighty whities.”

And there’s worse. Like I only opened one of those 3-packs, I left one in Hawai’i, and brought one home to Colden. So there’s a 3-pack of white Y-fronts in a drawer in my house in Hilo. And one of my friends is going to use the house and he’s a very cool gay guy.

He opens the drawer, “Gah! Gah! And I like Don,” he says, “This isn’t something I wanted to know about him.”

The other sealed pack’s in the garage here, in the metal cabinet with the laundry detergent, the paper towels, that kind of stuff. I tossed it in there. Let’s say that my favorite plumber Bob’s at the house and he opens it looking for teflon tape. It’s all over for me, then. He’s going to say, “Oh shit. Look what happens when you run out of something. You got to see stuff you don’t want to see.”

Or what if somebody goes into the laundry hamper?

Comes to the house when they’re hanging on the line?

If Ruth gets angry at me and tells? Emails everybody she knows, with pictures?

So, yeah, you say, throw the damn things out. Stop worrying, get rid of them.

But how? What if the garbage guys see them? It’s not like your homemade porno tapes that you can put in the microwave or pass a magnet over so even if the garbos grab them there’s nothing to see. The bag might burst, and there’s the evidence, right there.

They’ll say, “We didn’t know he was that kind of guy. He seemed all right, but look at this. Next Christmas, we won’t even take his tip.”

I told my friend the Rolfer about all this and she tried to help out. I figured I could tell her because she’s worked on my old body. So she brings over a box of Rit dye. Black. But what if the Jim the UPS guy comes while I’m dyeing them?

“You need to sign for this. Uh, maybe I’ll do it for you.”

He probably won’t take his Christmas card, either.

So I’ll bury them in the yard. Gotta be the back yard. But what happens if the septic tank has to be fixed, and leach field dug up? The last time the septic guy came to pump we got started talking classic British motorcycles, AJS, Ariel, Norton.

He turns up the tighty whities with his Bobcat, he’s gonna say, “Saw a nice sixties Honda 50 step-through over in East Otto, thought you might be interested?”

Even the Japanese beetle grubs under the grass, waiting to grow up and attack my plants, one of them’s gonna go, “Shit, this milky spore grub control’s rough on me but you guys over there, looks like you’re getting it from milky tighty whities. Christ, whoever owns this place is a loser.”

Trolling

By Don Mitchell

Memoir

Back in the eighties, my girlfriend Sharon and I started going over to the foot of Ferry Street to join the poor people fishing in the Niagara River. On our side it was Buffalo, on the other side it was Fort Erie, Ontario, and just downstream was the municipal sewage treatment plant. The poor people ate their catches, or so they said. We didn’t want to, even though the sewage plant was downstream. Who knew where those fish had been? Plus, this was the Niagara River, which is the complete, one hundred percent outflow of entire Lake Erie. Nasty stuff that went into the lake at Cleveland, for example, showed up here, under the Peace Bridge, for the fish to eat or soak in.

So we usually gave our catch to the other fisherman, with some lie along the lines of “I love to fish but I don’t like fish.” Maybe they believed it, maybe not. I always felt safe down there, even though our fishing partners were people whom in another setting I might have crossed the street to avoid. But at the foot of Ferry Street it was all good.

There are salmon in Lake Erie, but no one at Ferry Street had ever caught one. I caught and lost a very large carp there – really, a four-footer, maybe five – and for a few days when we showed up some of the regulars nudged each other and pointed at me. I grinned and stretched out my arms. I would have landed that carp, too, except that Sharon had the long handled net way down the breakwall, catching minnows. She would get sidetracked by those minnows, which made excellent bait. She spent a long time at it because, she said, she really liked manuvering the net under a cloud of unsuspecting little silver fish. Sharon did like easing the net up from where you couldn’t see it.

One cold Sunday in December we went down to Seneca Lake to fish with her brother. He took in charters, sold drugs when the fishing was slow, and raised leeches for sale. His boat had a fish finder. I’d never seen one before, and when he started it up and I saw how it worked it didn’t seem fair to me. A little blip appeared on the screen.

“That’s a fish,” the brother said, “we’ll drive the boat over it and it might strike.”

It did. Sharon set the hook and reeled it in. A good sized lake trout, a pretty fish, but there had been no fight, no contest, less action even than at Ferry Street. But it was a higher teleost, a worthy fish. The brother’s girlfriend fried it up and we ate it.

I don’t like that trolling business because it’s boring. You don’t try to outwit the fish – you drag a lure through the water where the fish finder says they are. Then either they bite or they don’t bite. Even at Ferry Street we had to cast out and watch what we were doing. I don’t see the skill in trolling, but I might be missing something. I can’t shake the feeling that trolling is like sitting in a tree with a rifle hoping to blast an unsuspecting deer that ambles by. That’s hunting? Not to me.

A couple of months later we went to California. I promised her we’d go deep sea fishing. After California she was going to decide whether to marry me or not, she said, and because I thought I wanted her to, I figured I’d better do what she asked. In truth I wanted to go salmon fishing myself, even if it meant trolling from a charter boat. At least we’d be trolling in salt water, where there might be sharks, or maybe tuna. Anyway, big fish in deep salt water. I didn’t have visions of giant marlin. But if I had to use a sturdy rod with a massive reel, I wanted to hook something big. That would be fun – at least the fish would be a match for the tackle.

I found a charter boat in the Santa Cruz Yellow Pages, and made a booking. On a cold Easter Sunday morning we drove over from Aptos, where we were staying with friends. Along the way we saw Christians doing their Easter Sunrise thing along the beaches. When I heard one bunch singing what sounded like Christ The Lord Is Risen Today, I elbowed Sharon and said “Guess what?”

“What,” she said.

“He is risen!”

“Oh, just shut up,” she said. She had a mild case of Christianity.

The boat had a high tech fish finder, a serious captain, and a laid-back deck hand. On board there were three Israelis from Silicon Valley, and a half-dozen drunks. The drunks had blown a couple of joints before we left the dock. Then they started on the Bud.

We trolled along the California coast north of Santa Cruz, off the Sand Plant. Even though she had a rod assigned to her, Sharon hung out in the pilothouse watching the fish finder screen. Trying to spot them with a machine must have seemed more exciting to her than trying to hook them. Or maybe it was the early warning she liked, the old easing up the net thing, or maybe it was too cold. I didn’t know. I stayed outside, so I couldn’t ask her.

What I did know was that if she decided not to marry me there was another guy, a test pilot, luring her with more money than I had or would ever earn, and the possibility of a child. It was in character for her to be trying to see what was hidden down there rather than working blind like the rest of us, but I didn’t like it. I paid for the trip, so why couldn’t she come out onto the cold deck and troll with me? She could have just waited for the reel to scream, and then grabbed it. I was beginning to see that she wanted things offered up to her.

She wouldn’t even have to hold a rod, because they were all in holders. The deckhand assigned them to us – “This is yours, number four over there is yours, you two guys take seven and nine on the left side.”

“Port, right?” said one of the drunks.

“Yeah, port, sailor boy. And how many charter fishermen know that? I stick with left and right, talking to you guys,” the deckhand said.

“You got a point there,” the drunk said, and popped another Bud.

The captain found where the salmon were, but then a sea lion who could swim faster than we could reel them in found us. The salmon, well-hooked, couldn’t take evasive action. They couldn’t go faster than we could reel, so they were easy prey for the lion. At first I was worried about having a couple of hundred pounds of sea lion on my rod, but the deckhand said, “No, the fuckers know what they’re doing. They bite through behind the head. I never saw one get hooked.”

The captain drove his boat in circles above the salmon. When I wasn’t thinking about the sea lion, I couldn’t help imagining the fishing boat as a Q-ship getting ready to drop depth charges on an unsuspecting U-boat. I wanted a klaxon to sound and the bait racks to tilt and dump grey cylinders over the side. We’d cheer when the oil slick appeared. When the crippled U-boat surfaced we’d run up the White Ensign and attack with the heavy machine guns we’d disguised as gaffs. Victory at sea!

The sea lion, patrolling alongside the boat, was fearless. Sometimes he came right next to the boat and looked at us. One of the drunks threw a can of beer at him, and was ready to throw another one before the deckhand stopped him. Sometimes he disappeared, but we all knew he was there, all right, the arrogant, beautiful, fast-moving pirate lurking under the steely swells, letting us do his work. If we could have machine-gunned him, we would have.

He. It could have been a female, I guess, but I tagged it as a male. Why, is not even worth wondering about. I’m not offering a fable or allegory here. The way I figure it, the world delivers up what it delivers up, and it’s the humans who drape meaning over it. But it’s true, I said to myself, I can’t believe this. It’s too perfect. And then I stopped thinking about the sea lion as symbol, and returned to the practical issues, because I wanted a salmon.

The drunks would point and yell, There’s the bastard, but what could any of us do? One of the Israelis asked the deckhand if the captain could take off at high speed and lose him. The deckhand said no, that once a sea lion started grabbing the salmon it was all over. If we tried to go somewhere else, it would follow.

“This isn’t a cigarette boat,” he said, “you know what I mean? We could get away if it was. Do they have cigarette boats where you’re from?”

“I’ve seen them,” the Israeli said.

“All you can do,” the deckhand said, “is try to crank your reel faster than anybody else.”

“Makes sense,” the Israeli said.

The final score was eight for the sea lion, six for the humans. The lion didn’t get mine, though he made a serious rush at it when I almost had it in. But one of the drunks grabbed my line just in time and gave it a mighty jerk, slinging my salmon over his head onto the deck, where the deckhand tossed me his baseball bat and I whacked it. I was grateful for the helpful drunk. Without him the sea lion would have taken my salmon, and I’d have had nothing but a fish head to show for my charter.

Deus ex borracho, I thought, as Sharon waved at me from the cabin. I didn’t wave back because something was beginning to shift in me. Who was the salmon here, anyway? I’d beaten the sea lion, yes, but I was feeling I might just have saved myself.

On the way back we rescued a guy who’d lost his motor and was drifting towards the rocks. The captain spotted him and we took a detour towards shore. He took a line from us and we towed him in, his little outboard jumping and skipping on the grey California waves, through a school of bright Easter windsurfers, and into the bay at Santa Cruz.

I thanked the drunk and gave him a shoulder clap.

“No problem,” he said, “Glad to help.”

The deckhand gutted my salmon, and I gave him a twenty dollar bill.

“You did good with the bat,” he said.

On the flight out of San Jose we didn’t talk much. The shifting I’d felt on the boat continued. Before long we were back in Buffalo. I dropped Sharon off at her house, went to mine, and stuck my salmon in the freezer. Fresh, it would have been perfect, but I knew it would be wasted on her.

I waited. The Buffalo predator struck quickly – as I expected – and I wasn’t unhappy about it. May her bones stick in his throat, I thought, and then I called a woman I knew and invited her to help me eat the salmon.

“I got beaten by a fairy,” I said to David, the New York City Marathon finish line director, after I crossed the finish mats, wondering if I was going to puke. A worker put a medal around my neck. I talked instead of puking.

“I ran as hard as I could but the fairy beat me,” I said, and peeled off to the celebrity exit. I felt like weeping. I always do after a marathon, good or bad – it’s a flood, the emotion, the stuff you’ve kept pent up for a few hours because you’re concentrating on running, that stuff takes the easy way out, which is release by weeping. With David I didn’t worry about weeping or not making sense, because he’s seen a good half million marathoners finish and must have talked to a thousand of them. Or listened to them. Or danced away from their puke.

So he didn’t bite on the fairy thing. “Good job,” he said, “Good job. Looks like you’re in under five.”

“It sucks,” I said, drawing my mylar blanket around me, “I blew up. Groin. Groin blew up. Yesterday I told you hamstrings, but it was the groin. And I got beaten by a fairy.”

“Go up to the celebrity tent.”

He led me to a gap in the fence, where orange-jacketed workers checked out my secret stickers, and let me through. I had only had a couple of hundred feet to go and lots of attendants, because I was a celebrity, and we got special treatment before the race and after it, even though what happened during it was up to us. The other celebrities were real celebrities, like P Diddy, or they were friends of the sponsors, or they were like me, one of the guys in the racing business, getting what amounted to professional courtesy. Celebrity status at this race covered a lot of ground, and although I liked what it promised, I had been ambivalent about it because most of the other celebrities were not serious runners. Evidently I wasn’t either, because I’d just been beaten by a fairy.

At the moment, though, I felt like a celebrity. Someone offered me water. A man draped my arm over his shoulder and walked me away from the gate. Another person clipped my timing chip off and thanked me. A woman walked me up the path, looked at me carefully and asked if I was all right. I knew she meant was I physically all right, so I said I was fine and didn’t need anything. At the tent a young woman led me to the bags and found mine for me.

“Can I take anything out of it for you?” she said while handing it to me.

“No, I’m fine. But thank you.”

I wasn’t fine. What I meant was that I wasn’t going to faint, I wasn’t going to puke, my blisters and sore toes were nothing, and my groin didn’t hurt now that I’d stopped running. So I was fine except for the cramps that I knew would be along pretty soon, but in the meantime I could flop down on the Central Park celebrity grass and have some Poland Spring and hope that nobody I knew would find me for a while, wouldn’t out me and my dogshit time, because I wasn’t ready to talk about how much of an idiot I’d been, how I’d forgotten what I knew how to do, that I’d run stupidly and had been beaten by a fairy. Probably.

By this time I was thinking more clearly and wondering if the fairy had really beaten me. Maybe I’d beaten her. I didn’t know for sure, even though when I charged up the last little hill to the finish line, I’d thought that the fairy had been ahead of me, even though I couldn’t see her. The last time I’d seen the fairy she was ahead of me and moving away, but that didn’t mean she’d stayed there. The fairy and I had swapped positions eight or ten times since the 59th Street Bridge, and the last time I’d seen her moving away from me had been back on Central Park South, which had felt a hell of a lot longer at the end of the race than it had when I’d walked down it the night before to get to my free celebrity room in the Sheraton. I’d bet there were a thousand people on that stretch of road, so it was possible that I’d passed the fairy for the last time and hadn’t known it. But in my heart I was sure the fairy had beaten me.

It wasn’t that I wanted to beat the fairy. I wasn’t racing against fairies, or against women in their twenties, which is what I judged her to be. It was more that I didn’t want to be beaten by a fairy. At the time these seemed very different ideas to me, and after it was all over they still seemed different, but I couldn’t have said why. Logically they were identical. Either I beat the fairy or the fairy beat me, or we tied, which I knew hadn’t happened and couldn’t have happened because if I’d gotten into an all-out sprint with the fairy I felt sure I would have kicked her fairy ass, groin or no groin. I wasn’t sure I’d have had the balls to given the fairy an elbow or knocked her into – well, of course not. What had the fairy ever done to me? Nothing.

At least the fairy who beat me was an international fairy – English, because of the Union Jack stitched onto the top of her white fairy costume. I fell in with her on the 59th Street Bridge, just about the time my groin blew up for real. Back on the Pulaski Bridge it had started to go but it hadn’t gone bad until the big bridge. I’d been monitoring it carefully since the halfway point and it’d been deteriorating since then, which was bad because I had 10 miles to go, and had already fallen off the pace, because of the groin. I don’t even like the sound of groin, it’s blunt and ugly. Plus it’s all those little tiny muscles I can’t even remember the names of, little ones so you say, well, who cares about those little guys? Look after your quads and hamstrings and the rest’ll take care of themselves. Except nope.

Too fast, too fast, I couldn’t stop saying to myself, you took it out too fast, you idiot. How could I? Being old and out of racing form and reentering marathoning after twenty years out wasn’t any excuse because I’d known all those things and had meant to be cautious. And I’d even run the race the year before. But, almost unbelievably, I’d started my watch at the gun, and all the way walking and then jogging the 13 minutes it took to get to the actual starting line I hadn’t stopped and reset my watch so I could start it at the line. Me! The professional timer guy, timer of more than a thousand races, of nearly a million runners, making an idiotic mistake trying to time himself. Not starting my watch properly meant I couldn’t judge my pace from the mile markers all along the course.

So I’d run the first ten miles too fast. But I felt good, as I said to my son later, the plaintive cry of the runner who misjudged his fitness badly. When I was young I’d just say, well, I went out too fast so I’ll just have to hang on and maybe I’ll have a good one. Now that I’m old I say, I went out too fast, I’m fucked.

The Fifty-Ninth Street Bridge was the usual mixture of paces. Some runners were attacking it, some were walking, and the rest were passing people or being passed. I was passing people who were walking but about as many people were passing me. When I came up on the fairy I wasn’t too surprised. She wasn’t the only person in costume, although she was the only fairy I’d seen. You don’t really expect costumes in a marathon, because a marathon is serious business. You can get goofs in a marathon, people with stuff written all over their shirts, sometimes funny hats or socks, but not many costumes. But here was a fairy, white with silver trim. She looked good, too; her stride was short and controlled – just right for climbing. I passed her, slowly, wondering if I’d see her again, suspecting that I would.

Back in the pack the runners seem to be part of a giant phase-shifting experiment. We start in the same place, we end in the same place, but at every moment some of us are speeding up, some are slowing down. It’s almost fugal. I saw Nori, the Japanese guy, about every half hour. I came up on another Japanese guy and decided to say konnichi wa, good day, to him. I concentrated on my accent. He was surprised and, I think pleased. I never saw him again so maybe those words, the only words I said before I finished, magically took us so far out of phase that we never fell back in again.

The fairy never turned to look at me, and I never turned to her. I didn’t want to talk to her – it felt as though it would break some kind of spell. I almost did when I passed her in Harlem at the same time we both passed a chubby blue bug, well – something with antennae. I wanted to say, shaking my head, That blue bug is too much, isn’t she? In Harlem I still had hope for my 4:40 or 4:45, because I thought the groin might be easing and I’d be able to speed up even if I had to slow down on the long pull up Fifth Avenue.

The groin. Years ago when I was hanging with some medical guys who referred to people by their complaints.

“Got a toe to see you.”

“Is the tropical ulcer still out there?”

I wanted my groin to get better so I wouldn’t have to find the celebrity doctor, a thoracic surgeon doing volunteer duty. I imagined him calling out from his little tent, I’m ready for the groin.

I walked out to Central Park West to find my son. I was still thinking about the fairy and how I didn’t like being beaten by her. She was probably a fine fairy and on this Sunday she had been the better runner, but she was in costume. There’s a Richard Pryor routine about fighting a guy who knows karate, where he says Kick my ass if you can but don’t be hollerin’ at me while you doin’ it.

That’s how I felt about the fairy. You can clean my clock in a marathon but don’t be doing it in a costume. But is it really that simple? Is that really the problem? It’s not. It’s not really about the fairy. It’s about screwing up when I shouldn’t have, and not liking admitting it to myself.

When I finished, someone put a medal around my neck. I left it on when I went out to the street. I’ve never been one to wear a finisher medal. The year before I hadn’t worn mine, but later David gave me a hard time about it. Everybody wears their medals after this race, he told me, big-time executives wear their medals to work on Monday, with their Armani suits and silk ties, and it’s cool. So I wore mine and yes, everybody said Hey, congratulations. On the street they said it. At the restaurant where I went with my son they said it. At Jet Blue I wasn’t the only one in the lounge wearing one, and they all said it, and we the finishers exchanged glances. In the airplane my seat mates said it. What they all said was, Good job. If I’d run a smart race I’ve have loved it, but all I could think of was, I ran a bad race. I lost control. I was stupid.

I was married then. My wife picked me up at the airport and said, “You’re my hero.”

I said, “I got beaten by a fairy.”

And she looked at me like I was nuts, and I didn’t know what to say, so I said it again, “Don’t you get it? A fucking fairy beat me.”

She said, “Who cares? You’re sixty years old and you ran a marathon faster than a lot of other people did and I don’t know why you’re complaining. How many in your age group?”

I said, “I don’t know. P Diddy beat me, too.”

She said, “You’re old enough to be his father.”

“Christ,” I said, “you don’t understand.”

When we got back to the house I went to my workroom. I didn’t want to do anything childish like throw my medal in a drawer so I hung it on the window latch. The neighbors wouldn’t know what it was, so they wouldn’t tell me I’d done a good job. Then I went out on the net to check the stats. Had I really gotten under 5, as David said?

Shit! No – 5:00:16. Seventeen seconds faster and I’d have been there, not that a sub-5 was anything to brag about.

So much for the absolute time. What about place? Just over six hundred men 60 to 64, and I’d beaten nearly half of them. Not bad. But if I hadn’t been an idiot I could have beaten more of them.

How many runners finished behind me? 8,500. OK, not so bad. I can live with it. But more than twenty thousand finished ahead of me. Bad.

The fairy beat me. Bad. But she deserved the win. So, the truth? Not so bad.


Looking Good!

By Don Mitchell

Sports

The New York City Marathon’s coming up November 1st. I ran NY in 2002 and 2003 and so I thought I’d post my 2002 marathon piece today, and my 2003 one just before the race. I’m a 5+ hour marathoner now, but vanity (or pride?) compels me to say that I used to be a decent runner. I ran 20 marathons, some ultras and a lot of short stuff. At my peak (age 36-38) I ran 5:00.8 for a mile, 35:20 for 10K, 2:51 for the marathon, and 7:24 for 50 miles.

In 2006 I ran my last marathon, joined by TNB’s Stefan Kiesbye, who finished ahead of me by 47 seconds. I’d like to say I let him go ahead, but that would be a lie.

In 2002, I was injured going into the race. Going out to the car to catch Jet Blue the day before the race, I slipped on a patch of ice I didn’t see, bounced down my front stairs and onto the sidewalk, tearing my rotator cuff and seriously bruising my thigh. But hey – I’d trained hard and it was my first marathon in 21 years, so I flew down and ran anyway. I hoped my thigh would hold up, but it went bad after a couple of miles.



So I’m dying – you know, that’s how we talk about it later, I died – and those spectators, Jesus Christ there were thousands of them, maybe a hundred thousand of them, no really, it’s true. New York City Marathon. Thousands of them, yelling at me: looking good! I couldn’t stand it.

You know what I mean? No?

OK. Like this: I’m dying early from a muscle ambush. Something’s busted in my right quad and none of my old fix-it-on-the-run tricks are working.

Plus I look like shit. I don’t want to hear about how I look good. Some people die, they don’t look so bad. They slow down, that’s all. Like this Italian woman who passed me, stayed out in front, then, I don’t know, five or six miles later she comes back to me. She looked good. Even coming back, she was probably dying, she looked good.

What? How did I know? Her shirt. Italia on the back is how I knew. Lots of that out there: France, Espana, a couple of big girls from Alabama, I think they were Meg and Rose. Yeah, names on the back, maybe on the front too, who knows? I was behind them. Must be so spectators can call their names.

Me, no way. Never did it, except once at Boston I wore my Buffalo Philharmonic A.C. shirt and people screamed, Go chicken wings! But a name, no way.

I saw stuff in duct tape too, like My husband made me do it. Duct tape! Not a lot of Jesus stuff, though, except a guy passed me, he was carrying a cross and a flag. OK, man, run your ass off for God and Country. Thing was, right, he passed me. I got him back in Harlem, though, the bastard died.

Looking good!

So that Italian woman. Maybe she was pretty or maybe not, but she had a nice ass which I watched for what, half an hour? What was I supposed to do? She was two steps ahead of me, I was dying, that’s what people do, right? Boats sinking, airplanes going down. OK, we’re all gonna die here, so let’s get it on while we can? Isn’t that what they say? Last chance.

She had black tights like mine, with white dried-sweat line showing me where her briefs were – French cut, you know, with the high legs and what looks to me like a permanent wedgie – and I was guessing mine looked the same, though they were ordinary Calvins, low cut. But I’ll bet you they were white-lined like hers, so maybe somebody behind me was thinking, hey, not a bad ass for an old guy but that white line is gross.

Makes it worse, see, I’m dying, I’m already dead, and what, I’m noticing nice asses? And I’m thinking, What’s wrong with you, shithead. Con-cen-trate. Don’t die. See, you don’t ever want to say you’re dying when you’re dying, because then it’s true and it’s all over. Afterwards you say you died but while you’re dying you don’t admit it. A little pain, a bad patch – that’s what the Brits like to say, a little bad patch. Christ, what a euphemism.

And me, when I’m dying I think of words like euphemism or I do some tunes in my head, even though in New York every mile or so there’s some band so it’s hard to keep your own tune going. There was a Korean church orchestra, all in black, sitting at an intersection, strings, brass, everything, but playing My Country Tis of Thee which to me is not good running music. I like the last part of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, it’s Italian, right, the part that just goes Santa Maria, Santa Maria, and then once I did a six hour race with Beethoven, Archduke Trio, first movement, theme.

Looking good!

My stride’s gone to shit too, see, you can say that to yourself because you can try to do something about it. But you can’t come back from the dead. And you can say you don’t look good, too, that’s OK. And I don’t. There’s snot running from my nose because it’s cold. The right cuff on my polypro top’s all nasty from wiping. My hair, what’s left of it, it’s gotta be sticking up every which way from the wind.

So where was I? Oh, names, signs. Buffalo, too. Yeah, Buffalo. I’m limping along and people start with Go Buffalo, and I’m thinking, What, how do they know? I’m outed.

Then this guy runs up beside me, he’s got Buffalo written on his shirt, front and back, I don’t recognize him, but I say, Wait’ll they start with the Go chicken wings and he acts like he doesn’t understand what I mean.

Looking good!

Oh yeah, I was looking good. Mister All In Black Man, but that’s because of the temp. You know what I mean? I only had black tights. Yeah. In these long ones you know you’re gonna feel like shit towards the end, you know, if you do it right you redline the whole way and there you are at the end, nothing left. Even the Kenyans do it. It’s not magic. You’ve got so much in the tank and then it’s all gone and the goddamn finish line’d better be there. But you don’t expect to die early, not if you’ve done your work and you’re being careful.

Looking good!

What am I supposed to say? They’re trying to help. Jesus, I’ve gone looking good myself even when I’ve figured in about thirty feet the guy’s gonna be down on his knees puking. Said it anyway. Said it to women too, just as bad. You know? It’s what you say.

Right? Am I right? Say it but you don’t want to hear it. Who needs that shit? It’s bad enough, dying, and then you gotta worry that you’re rude, too? Because, you know, it would be rude. To be, like, Hey, bud, you don’t know shit about this, do you? Any asshole can see I’m dying.

Right. So here’s this guy, he’s trying to help, you know he’s trying to help, and so you stick it to him? What a prince you are. For that you should die, you know, your goddam quad should just snap, blam! the tendons let go, it should writhe around in your tights like you’ve got some wild animal in there. You deserve it. But you know, what’re you supposed to do? Only saints are saints when they’re dying.

Looking good!

Oh man, then the kids and the hi fives. Man, those little Hassid kids back in Brooklyn, their fathers silent, nothing at all, their mothers smiling a little, and the little kids, all nicely dressed, hats, shy smiles, held out their little Hassid hands for me to touch them. You bet I did. Maybe they liked me because I was all in black, too. The kids in Harlem, the Hispanic kids being held out by their fathers, the Chinese kids, all the same.

All the kids were the same – Hey mister! Touch me!

Christ, can you imagine, you know, you’re dying, you feel like homemade shit, and these little kids reaching, wanting something from you, that little palm. No way you don’t do it. They’re just kids, even when you’re dying you know that. They don’t know what you’re feeling.

You don’t want them to know.


Tsunami!

By Don Mitchell

Memoir

I wrote this some time ago and had no thought of posting it, but because the tsunami that hit the Samoas has been in the news and in my thoughts today, I offer this as a first-person tsunami account.

On Monday, May 23, 1960, in Hilo, Hawai’i, I was nearly killed through my own foolishness, and then, not an hour later, I began rescuing people who were already dead. I was 16.

I heard about a great earthquake in Chile on the way back from doing archaeology at a refuge cave in the Ka’u Desert. When I got to town I went to Civil Defense headquarters, where I was an amateur radio operator. There was nothing much between us and Chile, but we thought that the South Pacific would give us clues about what Chile might be sending our way, since the shock, spreading in a great arc, would pass through there first. We got crackling reassuring reports: Tahiti, nothing; Christmas Island (now Kiribati), six inches. We knew that if anything was coming, it would arrive around one in the morning.

A friend and I left the radios and went down to the shore to watch for the tsunami. Nobody told us not to. The first wave was small, nothing more than a rapid high tide, not even as frightening as a tidal bore. It wasn’t recognizable as a wave at all, but it triggered the automatic warning sirens, which began low moaning and then wailing. A few minutes later the second one arrived. It washed a foot or two higher.

By then it was after one AM, and when instead of moving water we realized we were looking at the deep lumpy black of the bay’s floor, we were transfixed. The ocean was being sucked out. We stood and watched. We scrambled a little higher on the embankment so we could see better out into the bay. We waited.

Even now I don’t know why we waited. Maybe we wanted to be cool and have something to brag about later, when we’d trade stories with the other kids about how close we’d come to the wave. All I remember from that time – it couldn’t have been more than 30 seconds – is the feeling that I had to stay there and see what was going to happen.

The next thing I saw was a wall of water that seemed to jump up from nowhere, coming at us. I knew that tsunami could do sixty miles per hour near shore, but I had never thought about what that meant, about how much time I’d have to react.

We started running up the embankment, heading inland. But I realized we’d be taken from the rear if we did, so I shouted “Bridge, bridge” and we turned and ran along the embankment and out over the Wailuku River, onto a metal landing-mat bridge that had replaced the concrete one destroyed in the 1946 tsunami. We ran towards the high ground on the other end of the bridge and we didn’t make it there. The wave hit when we were half way across, surging under and through the bridge, coming up around our knees. I grabbed the metal railing and screamed, because I believed I was about to die.

Our town was built in a crescent. Because we were at one of the tips, I could see the wave hump up and slam into downtown. The noise was tremendous. The power plant blew up and the lights went out.

The bridge bucked and heaved but it held. Even now I can hear the metal creaking and groaning, and I can feel salt water splashing my face. After maybe twenty seconds, the rushing sea dropped below the bridge deck, and we let go and ran to the other side. Some men who had been watching cursed us for crazy kids. “You real stupid, play with da wave like dat,” one yelled angrily, and the others hugged us, slapped us on the back, kept asking us if we were all right. An old Japanese man pointed his finger at us and then out towards the bay, and said, “Lucky you folks no die, you know? No can forget dis. Lucky you no die.”

We crossed another bridge upstream and went to our cars. I drove home and said to my parents, who were on the porch looking, wondering what had happened, “It’s bad, it’s bad. I think it’s all gone. I’m gonna try to rescue people.” I didn’t tell them about the bridge until much later.

I went into my father’s shop, got an axe and a crow bar, and drove back downtown where other kids had already gathered at Civil Defense. Somebody passed out red hard hats. We put them on, drove to where the worst destruction was, and began.

In the early-hours bravado we called ourselves the Rescue Squad. By dawn we knew there was no hope, there could be no one left for us to rescue. Everybody we found was dead. We kept at it for four days anyway, but never found anybody alive.

It’s only after earthquakes and building collapses that survivors last for days. A tsunami either mangles and crushes you in your house or pins you down just long enough to drown you. It’s in and out in a couple of minutes at most, but that’s enough time to kill you if you can’t get free. If you’re swept cleanly away, if you’re sucked back out to sea on flotsam or jetsam, you might survive to be found later, maybe clinging to a door, or hanging over a dresser drawer. The shock waves will have rushed on, the sea will have calmed itself, and you’re likely to be rescued from gentle swells.

We found our friend Ken Nakamoto’s mother in the first couple of hours, in a collapsed house. We wouldn’t have seen her at all except that her leg was sticking out from what had been her porch. When we heaved the porch up and got her out she was pale, even peaceful, in her nightgown. There was a little blood on her leg but she was otherwise unmarked. She had almost gotten out into the street, where maybe she could have caught something and survived.

Where’s Kenzo? we asked each other, even though we’d already poked under the house enough to be sure nobody else was there. We said this looking around as if any minute he’d come out from his room and help us with his mom. His room was smashed and his mother dead and we had her body, and we didn’t know where he was, but we started saying those things to each other anyway as if we had dropped by and were waiting for him to come home from school.

She had been drowned, not crushed; so strange to realize it: drowned, but here, inland. The sea was back where it belonged, two hundred yards away. Mrs. Nakamoto’s was the first newly-dead body I’d ever seen. It was the first one I’d ever touched, and she was cold the way everybody said bodies were, and she was smooth, too. The cool smoothness of her arms and legs has stayed with me. The sudden movement of her foot in my grasp as her body sagged when we lifted her has never left me, nor has the feeling of fear that it would slip from my hand and I would drop her, and she would be hurt.

Somebody, the police or maybe Civil Defense, had organized the little open-air buses and their drivers, pressing them into service as ambulances and hearses. The buses were called sampans and even then I caught the irony. Sampan was the name for fishing boats that left the Wailoa River every night, motored past the end of the breakwater, where the tiger sharks were, and on to open sea. Sampans stayed out all night, returning at dawn with their catch.

We lifted Mrs. Nakamoto’s body into a sampan. We laid her out on the floor on her back, because it seemed wrong to put her in face-down. But that meant we had to look at her. The driver, an old Filipino man, headed for the morgue at the hospital. All of us had been born at that hospital, which was a couple of miles out of town. I can’t remember who started it, but suddenly we were making fun of the driver, who was shaking with fear of Mrs. Nakamoto’s dead body. He didn’t deserve this from us, but we didn’t deserve to be sitting on leatherette bus seats around the body of our friend’s mother in her nightgown. We were in an open bus before dawn with a dead body we’d found, and we didn’t know how to behave.

We looked at each other, grinned, and teased him. “Shake-shake,” we called to him, “Hey, Shake-shake, baim’bai we go back downtown for get moah dead folks.” He laughed a high-pitched old man Filipino laugh, and kept on driving, shaking. I was trembling myself; we all were. We agreed it was from the cold.

When we were about halfway to the hospital, we fell silent. I felt around under the seat and found a rolled-up mat, and tried to cover Mrs. Nakamoto with it. Opened the long way it wouldn’t sit properly on her, so I turned it and covered her chest and face with it. I think we all felt better after that.

At the morgue one of the orderlies looked at us, shook his head, and said, “You folks only kids. No good you do dis.” That gave us some strength, and with it pride, which is probably what he meant it to do. We were a Rescue Squad, and had to get back to it. We’d taken our catch up the hill, and unloaded it. Experienced, blooded, we got in Shake-Shake’s sampan and went out for more.

Our high school graduation had to be postponed because there were students who were dead, there were students whose parents were dead, and the Hilo Civic Auditorium where the graduation was to be had been seriously damaged, though not destroyed. We had our graduation two weeks late in the high school gym. I sat on the gym floor in my crepe gown and tasseled hat and my fragrant maile lei. Some of the other Rescue Squad kids were there, and Kenzo was too. We avoided him when school resumed, and he avoided us too. We understood that this was the best thing.

The Guidance Counselor wrote a letter to the paper praising us, and criticizing Civil Defense for having made boys do the work of men. But we had no complaint. We wanted to sit together at graduation, but it had to be alphabetic. I felt a sense of completion afterwards, a feeling that today I’d call closure, but I didn’t know the word then. It was important to have that graduation. I think the town saw it as a sign of recovery, of hope, maybe even an affirmation: our seniors graduate no matter what.

In Hilo there’s an official tsunami memorial, but the unofficial one means more to me. It’s the town’s pedestal clock, green metal pillar and a big white face, which was ripped from its base and washed half a mile up the Wailoa River. It stopped at 1:03, hands almost together, and it’s been left that way, cracked glass and all. They put it back on its stand, near the sampan landing, about half a mile from where we found Mrs. Nakamoto.

Every time I go home I drive down to that clock, and I stay with it for a few minutes. I know the passers-by think I’m just another Mainland tourist, because that’s what I look like now. They see a middle aged bald white guy looking at their clock – just standing, looking, not saying anything, not even taking a picture. It doesn’t bother me that they can’t know what I’m thinking about, that they can’t know what I’m remembering.

I never walk out on the bridge where I screamed and was nearly swept away.