Saturday, September 22, 2012

Hypothetically Speaking...

Blogue Date:  Sept. 22, 2012, 1:27 pm 
Blogue Space: the kitchen table, 678 Sinclair Terrace, South Orange NJ  07079
Blogue Goal: Explanation and expiation

He takes a big gulp of air, and sighs it back out.  He really wishes there were a distraction handy.  The TV 'classical music' channel is playing Liszt's 'Totendanz' -- no disturbance from that department.  Just 'Dies Irae' in various keys.  Outside, it's one of those gorgeous early fall days everyone wants to store away for future use.  But he's already bought makings for the evening's dinner, and he cleaned the driveway yesterday.  The day's mail contains only unsolicited blandishments for life insurance, and coupons for bizarre items of questionable use.  Instead of impediments, there's just the blank computer screen, waiting...

It's been weeks since he's written anything at all.

He's only trying to resurrect this because his doctor says it would be good for him.  And as he is generally willing to be obedient to authority, as long as it requires no perceptible inconvenience on his own part, he thinks he's willing to try.

But it's surprisingly difficult, for one who feels himself so glib and verbally acrobatic.  Obviously it's not a matter of not having the correct vocabulary to hand.

It's more the block of emotion that comes up, as he thinks about where his last entry left him off, and  
how dreadful he's felt, since he managed, literarily speaking, to get his little autobiographical narrative that far.  Now, he finds himself crying when he drives.  Crying when he folds the warm laundry.  Crying when he tries to complete a cross-word puzzle, or goes outside to pull the volunteer oaklings and maple saplings out of the rosebushes, to keep the front sidewalk from becoming a young deciduous forest.  He can control this crying, generally, but it's always perilously close to the surface.  He feels, most of the time, like a cheap plastic glass filled to the absolute brim with salty water.  The merest hint of a jar will do the job.

And when he thinks about it, this seems a bit odd, if not downright darkly funny -- he only started that autobiographical reminiscence in order to illustrate how benign and uneventful his four years of military service -- in the US Air Force, from 1964-1968 -- were, especially compared with the battle experiences of his colleagues at the Combat Paper group, with whom he still works most Sundays.  But instead of reeling off one instance of banality after another -- to the point of having to describe the upholstery on the Olmsted Air Base shuttle bus, just to have something to write about -- he has unearthed a malign treasure trove of his own making -- a heap of bad judgements, instances of stunning selfishness, heedlessness and lack of the simplest moral fiber.  And, tangled in among this sticky mess, the recollection of one improbably clean thing -- one sliver of a friendship that, somehow, he didn't manage to dirty.

So he has now done a stupendously stupid and futile thing -- more than one thing, really.  He has launched a search.  He asked friends on a popular social network to spread his request.  He has begun the process, with what aid the US Navy can provide, of relocating this friend from so far away.  The belated news of the 1978 fire that destroyed warehouses full of military records in St. Louis should have blotted out hope, but it didn't.  He wonders about contacting high schools, city halls, places where county records are kept.  This is the age of Google, he scolds himself -- everything can be found.

'After all, they find golden rings inside of fish, don't they?' he has asked himself, in his semi-comic self-defense.  All the while spinning out, on an almost unconscious level, mental mini-movies of where another man's life might have gone in almost fifty years.  The possibilities are too numerous even to scoff at.  Still, every day, he feels a tiny hopeful twinge, opening his email, or going into the front hall, where mixed with the ads for furnace cleaners and gutter repair, there might be a small hand-written envelope with a note inside.

And he's ashamed of this, of course.  Shame seeming to be his principal attribute -- the one thing in life at which he's truly a world-class talent.

Well, and he's got some editing to do.  Past chapters have been pointed out as being too explicit, too much of a possible problem for friends and family.  He doubts changes one way or the other will make any difference, but this rewriting will give him something to do, until it's time to start the laundry again.  Or try to get the pineapple mint out of the bed of low, blue-flowered, dark-leafed ground cover plant he can't remember the name of, so he must be drifting into Alzheimer's.  That sort of thing.             

So, this is the sort of thing he would write.  Trying to apologize, perhaps, for the length of the silence -- not that this has been of especial inconvenience to anyone.  Trying to explain, as seems unpleasantly usual, something he would rather not know about himself. 

He wonders, parenthetically, how long emotional stages like this last, if this can be known.  Even a general ball-park estimate would do, since he's got shopping to do this week, and he may as well really stock up on paper towels. 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Playground Pimps and You

Well, maybe it's just the heat.

I'm out in California for a few days, visiting John's family.  This afternoon, I took a walk (in spite of the near-record heat) up the hill, from our room at the Holiday Inn Express, to the Montebello Mall.  I hoped to find a Starbucks and a copy of the Sunday New York Times.  Vacations being what they are, I also badly needed the exercise.

I walked further than absolutely necessary, then walked back, found a mall entrance, and managed to decipher the 'You Are Here' map well enough to find: Starbucks.  Which carried, alas, no Sunday New York Times.  Pragmatist that I am, I decided that, for the moment, caffeine without a newspaper was (marginally) better than a newspaper without caffeine.  So I tanked up, and decided to continue my semi-heart-healthy stroll through the air conditioned mall.  Coffee in hand, I wended my way up one side aisle, to the next up up escalator, then down an upstairs aisle, to the down the escalator, you get the idea.

The coffee was long gone when I began to think about of starting the walk back to the motel -- which, though hot, would at least be downhill.  To get my bearings, relative to whichever escalator I would need, I paused outside a shop window.  The Baby Shop, it announced.  I recalled that I'd seen a display of theirs in the front window of an empty first floor space.  Enterprising and enthusiastic business sense, I thought.  I gave a cursory glance over their main window display, even though I've long since grown out of any need for baby clothing, and I was about to walk to the escalator, when something caught my eye.

Suspended by their little arms, in the center of the window, and arranged on a descending row of dowels, were four or five rows of little black crew-neck t-shirts, sized for what I'd estimate to be perhaps two- to three-year olds.  Each of these black shirts had a clever saying printed on it in white -- things like 'I'm Hot, You're Not', and 'It's My Turn Now'.  And there, front and slightly off-center, was one that gave me a jolt.  'Playground Pimp', it said.

'Playground Pimp'.

I actually tried, for a few too many seconds, to make these two words mean something else, something other than what I knew they meant.   Something perhaps more wholesome and funny and -- what's that other word?  Oh, yeah -- appropriate.  But even giving many benefits of many doubts, I still came irresistibly back to the same realization -- this was an offensive and inappropriate and possibly even a dangerous shirt for any young child to wear.

But I'm on vacation, I told myself.  I'm sweaty from my walk and my coffee, I'm in flip-flops and a t-shirt, I'm a greying 65-year-old white man, slightly buzzed from caffeine, and 3000 miles from home -- what business is this of mine, I asked myself.  Looking at 'Playground Pimp'.

I went into the store.

My impressions based on the lower-floor display were erased, by the disorganized array of merchandise and the bad lighting.  But I wasn't there to shop for princess dresses.  I found the sales desk, and asked if there was a manager about.  A small dark man, who looked as though his chief attempts at personal hygiene were an occasional swipe with a rag dipped in Canola oil, volunteered that he was the very person I was looking for.  Talking to me through a mouthful of food, and  without missing a bite of the limp french fries he was digging out of their partly-translucent paper sleeve.  I thought I was ready.

"The black shirt in the window, the one that says 'Playground Pimp' on it -- would that be more appropriate for a boy or a girl?" I asked as he chewed.

His eyes lit up a bit, and he stopped mid-fry, beginning to smile and tell me something, when I repeated, slightly louder, "Playground Pimp?  Playground Pimp?"

Of course, I always mean to be so cool and contained and James Bond-like (though I could hardly imagine him stooping to such a nano-conflict), but I've never really learned how to be calmly angry, devastatingly witty and unassailably correct.  The Perfect Outraged Customer.  Mr Manager knew his advantage almost instantly, and began to protest, not my concern about his choice of merchandise, but my tone of voice, whining a complaint that I'd come into his store yelling at him.  And of course, completely diverting any meaningful exchange that might (improbably, of course) have emerged about the actual point of dispute.  I knew discussion was hopeless, so I simply turned and walked out, repeating 'Playground Pimp',  'Playground Pimp', louder and louder as I reached the door.  Luckily, I have long legs, and the shop was small.

Playground Pimp.

What, if anything, would you have done, in this situation?  When, if ever, is it appropriate to point out the inappropriate?  This is a sticky issue for me.  Now of course, I realize that the manager's reflex, to throw back my increased vocal volume as though it were just as offensive as the idea of a three-year old running around the neighborhood playground with 'Playground Pimp' emblazoned on a tight black t-shirt, was a time-honored argumentative ploy, almost as old as argument itself.  I make an observation; he points out that I've mispronounced something; dispute is derailed; nothing is resolved.

So, I'm writing this, so at least (perhaps) one other person on the planet can see it and make up his/her own mind about whether my reactions were called for or not.  I am thinking, seriously, of writing to the mall's management group, to make an observation about the general appearance of their mall, and also about some of the display choices made by some of the merchants.  And frankly, if this (pardon my lack of restraint) greasy little sleaze wants to feature these objectionable shirts inside his shop, along with mini g-strings and pasties for the four-year-old set, that's (almost) a different matter.  (All this without even beginning to address the designer who put this sorry excuse for children's clothing on the shelves)    

But -- and I'm not trying to use unwarranted hyperbole here -- I think it's not a bad idea, overall, to keep children safe.  I think it's not a bad idea to let children remain in their state of (relative) pre-hormonal innocence, for as long as possible.  And, if the over-loud complaints of a wild-eyed vacationer with coffee on his breath somehow reduces, by the merest hint of a percentage point, the chance of even one little pre-schooler being mishandled and abused, because 'Playground Pimp' isn't printed on the front of the little black t-shirt running around by the swing set, then I'll take the hit.  I'll be that over-sensitive, politically correct, humorless tyrant. 

After all, kids that small can't read -- to them, 'Playground Pimp' might as well be 'Pick Me Up and Squeeze Me'.  Somebody, somewhere, should be able to point out the difference.      

©  2012             Walter Zimmerman

Friday, August 3, 2012

Three Years, Nine Months (Part 4)

Well, I'll have to say that, as banal and uneventful as I had thought my military career was, I'm finding it quite difficult to write about -- at least, if I expect myself to tell the truth.  Today, to give myself some comforting inner model from which to work, I'm going to think about my life as a piece of stone.  Cold, solid, tangible.  And I'm acting like, perhaps, a team of geologists, examining this stone, and appraising its makeup, its flaws, and hypothesizing about how and why this particular example of what is, after all, a fairly common stone, ended up looking like this.

I begin like this, because I'm frankly ashamed of much of my early life, especially the period of my military enlistment.  And I want to make as clear as possible that, when I might seem to be making the attempt to shift the responsibility, or blame, onto someone else, that isn't my intention.  To use the stone analogy again, it is an effort to understand and remark upon the forces that helped shape this particular stone into what it looks like.  Clearly, I understand that I have the ultimate responsibility of the choices I made.

God, this is going to be a cold and unpleasant swim.

When last we saw the young airman, he had just abandoned the girl he'd gotten pregnant, had just begun to have what I supposed we could call a 'gay life experience', and was standing in his barracks hallway, looking at his name on a re-assignment list.  Which list suggested that same airman would, by the date indicated, by serving the next year of his enlistment in Iceland.

Dazed and ashamed as I still was by my treatment of the abandoned girl, depressed as I was by what felt like a brick wall, having collapsed on top of me, this reassignment seemed like a chance to escape.  As if running halfway around the world would change things.

Those of us being reassigned weren't given much time to prepare for shipping out.  Frankly, the only thing I remember of that period was my faint attempt to learn something about where I was going.  The base library wasn't the richest source of information.  I discovered that the Icelandic Independence Day (from Denmark) is June 17th.  But for some reason, I was most interested in what kind of insect life might be supported there.  The available encyclopedia made no mention of Icelandic arthropods.

Somehow, in one of those fogs that seemed less like real life and more like living in a badly-focused film, I got myself and my belongings to New York, and boarded the appropriate plane for Keflavik.  It was a long flight, and we had a layover in Goose Bay, Labrador, because of bad weather ahead.  To me, it made no difference whether we arrived in the morning or the afternoon, or even if we ever landed at all.

But we did.  Mid-May, in Iceland.  The air was unusually crisp, and there was a strong breeze blowing.  I got my things and went to the barracks, to sign in and find out who my roommates would be.  Things still seemed fuzzy and slightly blurry.

When I got to my room, I met the two guys who were already deep into their tour of duty there.  They were busy, taping aluminum foil to the inside of the windows.  I had a bad feeling about this.  How would we ever pass inspections, with our windows blocked out?  They explained that the sun had already begun setting later and later each day.  Soon, there would be too much light coming in, to allow us to sleep.  Maybe this was one of the reasons Iceland was considered a 'hardship' tour.  Given that, at the time, the war in Vietnam was a more common destination for relocated military personnel. I was grateful to be so far away, even if I did have to live, surrounded by aluminum foil, like a baking potato for four months of the upcoming twelve.

Later that day, the First Sergeant (or, Boss of the Barracks) called everyone in the building out into the first floor hallway, and demanded to know who had kicked in the door to his office the night before.  There was a long, long, long, long silence, and I was very uncomfortable.  I remember having a powerful urge to raise my hand, and take the blame, even though (as I was frantically trying to remind myself, over and over again) I'd been three thousand miles away when the door was damaged.  I couldn't have done it.  I couldn't.  But my generalized sense of guilt, and a dread of scenes like this, made it difficult for me to think straight.  Finally, someone admitted the deed, and he followed the First Sergeant into the office, and the splintered door was shut behind them.

While the historic me is unpacking his clothes and other effects, and first experiencing jet lag without knowing what it was, let the current me explain why anyone at all was in Iceland in the first place.
Situated between the North Atlantic and Arctic Ocean, Iceland is the main land mass Russian submarines would have to pass, in order to do whatever Russian submarines do once they've passed it.  Iceland didn't really care about the Russian submarines, but NATO did, and so arranged to install and operate a naval station, with Iceland's permission, and acceding to Icelandic demands.  The Navy had the enormous, bulb-headed 'sub-chasers' that flew overhead, using sonar to track the underwater Soviets.  The Air Force, according to the agreement, had given Iceland some fighter jets.  But, as Iceland has no military, there was no one to pilot these planes, unless the US supplied same.  And, as pilots never fix their own planes, or cook their own meals, or do their own laundry, or keep track of their flight hours, a whole varied bunch of Air Force personnel were brought to the North Atlantic, to take care of the little things.  I liked to think of us as the big and unappetizing portion of the food pyramid.

Oh, and by the way, the station was built at Keflavik because, for Icelanders, it was the ugliest place on the whole island.

And as I had been 'trained' as a computer operator, computer operating was what I would be doing -- although, by today's standards, what we call computer operating is not much different from using an abacus, or making little piles of stones.  My office was maybe a five-minute walk from the barracks, and those walks were often the most pleasant part of my day.  The air continued to be almost keenly fresh, and what I took for a gust of wind when I first arrived was, in fact, the constant 25 mph wind, generally from the west.  Often, if there was a light rain falling, I would arrive at work half wet and half dry, the dividing line being a vertical line from head to toe.

The work was what military work usually was -- dull, repetitive, and completely meaningless to me.  The only thing I did, each month, that seemed to have some relevance, was sitting at the punch card machine and entering the amount of time each pilot spent aloft -- at least I was having some kind of indirect impact on another person.  The rest of the time was spent using the card sorter, and with my poor attention span, I could never remember how far I'd gotten in the process, and would have to start a complex job all over again.  A job which, today, either wouldn't exist, or would take about a nano-second to complete.

The other interesting thing about my job, at least for a while, only had to do with where the squat little building was situated.  We were on a pebble-strewn field, with some flowering grasses and spongy mosses scattered here and there.  A plover (I can't specify which particular variety -- let's say it was a golden plover.  Has a nice ring to it) had laid her eggs, as some plovers are wont to do, out in the open, in a shallow depression she'd made by pushing some pebbles aside.  The eggs were smaller than hens' eggs, and speckled for protection.

I'd noticed the bird, from the office's back window, and when I had a chance to see what was so interesting about that particular spot, the bird went into her very convincing survival act.  She flew up, about ten yards away, and then suddenly fell onto her left side, with one wing tucked under her and the other one waving as if in pain.  If I took a few steps in her direction, she pushed herself along on the ground, making little pitiful cries, to indicate how very easy -- stupidly easy -- it would be for me to catch her.  And of course, once we were what she considered a safe distance from her clutch, she miraculously recovered, and flew away.

I tried, while the eggs were there, to avoid putting her through this melodrama any more than necessary.  Mostly I kept a kind of peripheral eye out, watching through the office back window, in case someone should go walking across the field and unknowingly step on the eggs.  I'd hoped to see the chicks, but after a week, everything disappeared.  Nature.

When I wasn't working, what was I going to do?  This was another element of life at Keflavik that qualified it for its hardship designation.  Because of bad experiences with British soldiers during WWII (many babies with unnamed British fathers in post-war Iceland), Iceland required all military personnel to apply for a pass, to leave the base.  Anyone under a certain rank could not go off base out of uniform. To help ease the passing of the non-work downtime, there was a one-story social center on base, housing an officer's club, and a much larger facility for the enlisted men.  Burgers were available.  Beer was available.  Fights were available -- a wry joke was that the club was where the airmen went to watch the sailors fight with the Marines.  (Everyone used slightly different terminology for the combatants).         

When off-duty, and in my room, I would play my guitar and draw or write.  Sometimes, I took walks, either on-base or off.  I was of sufficient rank to wear civilian clothes when I left the station, and I took a lot of solo hikes down through the actual fishing town of Keflavik, and up to the cliffs beyond.  On the stony parts of the island, where it looks as if nothing could possibly grow, there is in fact a thick carpet of mosses, spongy underfoot.  Once I took my shoes off, to test it, and aside from dampening my socks, walking on the moss was quite comfortable.

The cliffs were much different.  Because I was there as summer heightened, the grasses were at their most abundant, startlingly rich where I expected nothing to grow, and whipping about in the breezes from the beaches and rocks far below.  There was a little path, right along the edge of the grass, and I could sit with my legs dangling over the side, watching the bay turn colors -- sullen blue-grey, almost black, deep celadon green, then a surprising and flickering amethyst.  Usually, with both the usual breeze at my back, and the gusts of air rushing up from the littered chunks of basalt, it was too cold to stay very long.


Thursday, July 19, 2012


Because my last post was so difficult, and because this other matter has been on my mind, I thought I'd take a little side-trip (again) before I finish up the overview of my military career.

This may also be a repeat of something I've already written -- I can barely get myself to put these words out there, let alone re-read my blogue posts.  If this begins to sound familiar, go watch some reruns on TV.  That's what I would do.

Years ago, while I was completing a month-long art-making residency in Buffalo NY, at Hallwalls, I was lucky enough to meet and get to know Ron Ehmke (em-key, stress on first syllable), archivist and general administrative genius.  I was flattered and amused that, when reviewing some of my work, he observed a distinct disconnect between my public persona, and the relentlessly dark work I made at the time (it's only gotten worse, by the way).  And as I know I've mentioned, I shared with him my reservations about my journal writing -- how un-literary it was, how filled with petty complaints.  He laughed and said that all diaries and journals are, by nature, whiny.  I heaved a sigh of (temporary) relief.

But that relief doesn't mean that I enjoy the thought of seeming like some spoiled brat who's upset because the chocolate milkshake isn't cold enough.  And they made it with chocolate ice cream, instead of coffee, like I ordered.  So I want to try to be more specific about what I think I'm doing with all of this...

As usual with me, even this attempt at clarification will be orotund and indirect.  Get a sandwich.

When I was a little boy, in Illinois in the 1950's, grocers and butchers and bakers still used thin white cotton twine, to secure a package of pork chops, or a boxed pie, or anything else that seemed to need a little extra security.  One of my favorite things, as a seven-year-old, was to find a bundle of this string, all seemingly irretrievably knotted up, and then sit alone and carefully, diligently loosen the tangle, until I had the whole string freed of its snarls.  What I did with the untied string after that, I have no idea.  It was the untying that was the point.

And, in a way that reminds me of a lesson from a fairy tale, I learned that pulling hard on that string, out of frustration or impatience, would only make the knots smaller and tighter.  Where, if I was gentle and patient, and kind of massaged the central bundle of string, I could coax things to unwind.  It worked almost all the time.  I enjoyed the process deeply.

From the perspective from which I'm currently observing it, my own life seems to be very much like one of those tangles of string.  Some of the knots I recognize.  Some of them I remember tying myself.  Some are buried so deeply that I can barely feel their buried presence, under the outer layers of snarls and twists and confusion.

Another digression.  (Maybe I have an Italian soul?  I've been told that, in Rome, the shortest distance between two points is an elaborately twisted, curving spiral)

During another art-making residency, I was speaking with a wonderful writer, Robin Rice.  As so often happens in these instances, Robin was fascinated by the gruesome story of my childhood, which led me to make the completely obvious and unoriginal observation that we are all wounded somehow, and that we all suffer.  Then I found myself stumbling upon a newer realization: that, for the greater part -- to the extent that I can know this -- I feel that I have actually been fortunate in my woundedness.  That I am essentially whole, physically (maybe a bit moreso, with the addition of the little pacemaking device) and intellectually (or so I think), and that I have, often, managed to take what were misfortunes, and somehow to convert the emotional energies entangled them into either the motivation, or the inner guidance I needed at the time, in order to make work with the inner consistency and what I thought of at the time as emotional truthfulness.  There are times, while working on an emerging bit of work, when any old bit of red cloth will do; there are other times when, as far as I'm concerned, making an arbitrary choice fatally deflates that work's essential inner tension.  And in cases like these, rationality doesn't work with nearly the clarity as emotional recall, and the harnessing of past misfortune to do what I hope will be something positive this time.

Doesn't this sound more like an artist's statement, instead of what I'd been aiming for -- something more like the calm reflections of someone clinging to some wreckage after a boating disaster -- physically unharmed, provided by fortune with a bit of buoyant flotsam, and but still facing a certain blistering, thirsty death -- much, much sooner than later?

But back to the main thread again.  This psychic untangling isn't (I hope) just a kind of motor compulsion, like the person waiting in the doctor's office and incapable of sitting still.  What I hope to do is to uncurl the fortunate and unfortunate events, the events I experienced as a victim and the events I perpetrated as the villain, knots that signify important personal choices (why, for instance, did I refuse the offer of an introduction to Joe Papp, in the very early 1980's, after I'd done some theater work with a cousin of his in Rhode Island?  Did I really think this was 'cheating', when it was the result of a bit of solid theatrical work?) and knots marking my serious bout of strep throat in 1982, and my broken leg two years later.  And then (as if this were possible), when things are more or less tidily laid out, I want to see where I went wrong.

A theme in Tolstoy's 'War and Peace' spells out -- along with the whimsical nature of unfolding historical events, which he saw as impacted far more deeply by, for instance, the fatigue or inattention of a soldier on the front line, than by decisions made by tables full of generals --  the impossibility of any person's knowing, with any degree of certainty, just how that person's own life figures, either among contemporaries and or among the lives to follow.  (I should know for sure that he said this, having read the work at least three times, to prepare for recording the opus, and then once more to correct a pronunciation mistake I'd been too arrogant to check -- I'll never think of hussars in quite the same way again)  And yet, in spite of this clear (and frustrating) admonition -- made, I always remind myself, by an hereditary Russian nobleman, writing an enormous literary work following on the heels of 'Anna Karenina', among others, so how insecure of history could he be, realistically? -- at this point in my life I consider myself to have failed deplorably and irremediably, through a host of personal flaws and a mass of ignorance which has always been ready for my own personal use at any moment. 

Where did I go wrong?  In a biography of Marie Antoinette, written by British author Hillaire Belloc, a bit more than a century after her life was ended, we read what I found to be the breath-taking breakdown of a failure, by just fifteen minutes, of the King's escape vehicle to meet with and fall under the protection of a rescuing guard of horsemen.  Which (particular) fifteen minutes changed (this particular bit of) history.  In my own microscopic-level experience of human life on earth, I suspect that there have been quite a few such slips and omissions, missed connections and unanswered phone calls, unwitting blunders and lapses in manners.  And I feel the need to balance these against the assurances, from many people, that I 'could do anything you want.', to quote my high-school art teacher, Leonore Weaver. 

As from others.  My eighth-grade teacher, Howard Mayfield, an intellect squandered in a back-country school outside of Pittsburgh, called me 'George'; he said I was another George Westinghouse, not another Walter Pidgeon.  I did flourish in the classroom, with ease in fact.  This led, of course, to the scornful, sneering chorus I heard at home, for some seven years of my young life -- "You think you're better than everyone else."  Well, judging by the only standards that I knew, in the only environment in which I spent as much time as I did at home, I was better (scholastically speaking) than (nearly) everyone else.   I was singled out, with some coarse, barked verbal abuse during basic training, because my aptitude test scores, which would determine my career field, could barely have been higher.  My scores on the language aptitude tests were so high that I could have claimed a passing score, and then divided the left-over points between two friends, to give them passing scores too.  (I didn't go to language school because I didn't have the then-current address of the airman with whom my mother had run off after my parents' divorce.  Hardly Louis XVI's fifteen minutes, but still...)  If all these scholastic achievements had been bankable, I would have entered young adulthood comfortably solvent.  But of course...

On the creative front, too, I've done better than might have been expected.  I had great credibility, among my peers during my undergraduate years, as both an artist and an actor, but my applications for graduate study weren't successful -- because in one case, as I was told by an official in a position to know, because I had been the protege of an unpopular member of the art faculty, his teaching colleagues would do nothing to gratify my professor in any fashion.  One way or another, I've continued pursuing some means of creative expression or another -- I even managed to make art on the copier machines at Morgan Stanley, and joined a group called (mouthful alert) The International Society for Copier Artists.  With printed editions in libraries around the globe.  I got an Equity card within six months of moving to New York, and joked that it just made it possible for me to be rejected by a better class of people.

And then, of course, there was the glass adventure.  To show for which, on the material level, I have in my attic, boxes filled with hundreds of the 'Chihuly' catalog, from my little show at the Everson Museum, in Syracuse NY, in 1997.  Plus innumerable pieces of blown glass, on shelves practically everywhere I look.  Except for the refrigerator.  

And then, of course, there was the brief, semi-accidental, semi-gratifying, semi-embittering college teaching career.  To show for which, on the material level, I have a couple of very nice watches.  Which, as it happens, were not awarded, in appreciation of anything, by anyone.   

So, whiny whiny whiny whiny -- I think the underlying mission on which I've embarked in this writing is as follows: The Discovery, If Possible, of the (Probably Many Places) Where I Went Wrong.  I'm not remotely hoping for a course-correction, or the discovery of a radical new dietary supplement, or the belated emergence of a long-lost, stupidly generous and wealthy-as-Croesus blood relative.  This all feels to me, now, as a kind of pre-mortem autopsy -- the examination of a life that just happens to be still residually warm from use, but from which we can only hope, at this point, to make forensic discoveries.  Sorry if this offends, or flies in the face of the support granted by my more-than-long-suffering spouse, and my attendant, admittedly more than adequate material privileges,  but as I've already observed (and continue to think is true), depression eats logic and wealth, luck and stamina, faith and intellect, all with equal relish, and with no apparent loss of appetite. 

So I'm setting my sights on what I think I can manage, realistically -- and I like the pre-mortem autopsy idea.  Sounds kind of like Law'n'Order lingo, with a twist.  I have the distinct impression that, by the time I've poked through the greater part of the remains, there'll be no one else left in the room, taking notes.  Can't say I blame you.  Close the door any way you like.

©       2012             Walter Zimmerman

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Three Years, Nine Months (Part Three)

(In which we will examine the importance of the more complex verb tenses, as they pertained to the unfolding life of a certain individual whose name need not be mentioned here)

When last we left our flourishing airman, he was in Middletown PA, at Olmsted AFB, either luxuriating in his barracks room, with a book of perhaps Chekov or Baudelaire, or wielding a mean toilet brush in the barracks latrine, for the fifth time in one month.  This could have been almost anytime between mid-March 1965, through late autumn of 1966.  But, as with all things, this would change...

In the first place, I was pretty bored with my job.  Even though my title was 'Computer Operator', what I really spent most of my time doing was carrying boxes of blank punch card stock to the card punch, or carrying boxes of green-and-white-striped form paper to the printer, or stacking piles of printed reports of how many rolls of toilet paper the Air Force currently had on stock in Wisconsin, or putting newly punched cards into boxes and sending them off to God knows where.  When I wasn't being a kind of cyber-nanny, I would draw, in grease pencil or magic marker, on the backs of the blank cards -- interesting as a surface, limiting as a format, their being so long and narrow, after all.

Then a fellow airman let me in on a little secret of his.  If I was bored, and wanted to make some extra money, I could easily get a part-time job as a data entry clerk at any one of the rapidly growing companies in downtown Harrisburg PA.  These data entry departments were working 24-hour shifts all week, just like us, so I could fit my part time, off-base work into my Air Force schedule with no trouble at all, he said.  He just wished we weren't on different shift cycles, because then we could both go back and forth at the same time.  But that little problem was easy enough to fix, he said.  All I would need, he said, was a car.

A car.

As it happened, I had two Air Force buddies who'd been close high school friends, from nearby Reading PA, and one of them offered to take me used car shopping some weekend when I was free.  (He was a programmer, so he worked normal hours, 9-5, Monday through Friday.  Sigh)  I'd already been to David's home, to meet his parents and his younger sister, who seemed on the brink of marrying the heir of one major American manufacturing concern or another.  When David's mother brought a tray of drinks out onto the front porch for everyone, I had one of those instant epiphanies that seem to pepper my life.

It was her sweater set.  I don't really remember what she looked like -- probably had short, dark hair, that kind of thing -- but the sweater set, and the locket, and her skirt, were like a kind of death knell, for a deeply-revered, stubbornly defended portion of the Zimmerman family self-image.  We were middle-class, my father would always say, somewhat insistently, and who was I to know any different?  (Besides the fact that, in our household, questioning authority was akin to deciding to walk across the Monongahela Bridge by balancing on the hand rail -- something bad would surely happen)  So I had accepted our place in the socio-economic hierarchy of America, until I saw David's mom, in her casual clothes for an early autumn afternoon.  Using some sort of innate means of appraisal, I gauged the fineness of what must be cashmere; the understated elegance of the little diamond pendant on a gold chain; the uncompromising sturdiness and classic lines of her plaid wool skirt.  I quickly estimated that, on the retail market, her afternoon outfit would have cost at least two full months of my father's wages.  At least.  And I realized that, truly, these weren't what would be considered fabulously wealthy people.  These people, I realized, were actually middle class.

How easy it is, for a seismic shift like this to take place, in a public gathering, with no one taking notice.  But, in an instant, it was as though the little portion of concrete, on which my chair was sitting, dropped straight down toward the center of the earth, by a good two or three hundred feet.  To the casual observer, nothing had changed.  From my interior perspective, I'd discovered an almost imponderable distance and difference, between me and these smiling people around me.  And they didn't seem to suspect at all...

So.  A car.  David took me, one Saturday, to visit a highly-recommended used car dealership across town from his parents' house.  I knew about as much about cars as I knew about astrophysics.  I was 19.  I was assured that, with this hypothetical car, I could appreciably increase my disposable income -- all the more since I paid nothing for housing or food.   So, we climbed out of the Porsche David was driving (it actually belonged to his wife, but he drove it as though it was his), and took a turn around the extensive lot, with its selection of not only domestic vehicles, but foreign cars as well.  Oh how my life would have been different, if I'd fallen in love with a Dodge.  But instead...

How many of you know what a Morgan is?  Not the horse, but the car.  Even all these years later, there's still a taste of regret at the back of my throat, that what still seems like a stellar opportunity should have presented itself to me, and then have been wrenched irrevocably away.  But I get ahead of myself.

In the foreign car section sat, or gleamed, or some other fabulous verb in its past tense, a pistachio green Morgan Plus 4.  Oh God, it reeked of English country homes and tweeds like David's mother wore.  It was immaculate.  The dealer, spotting a likely catch in yours truly, hurried over to extol the car's many virtues, and underscored his spiel by opening the hood, to display an engine compartment that was quite literally clean enough to be used as a buffet surface for deviled eggs and seedless grapes.  It was gorgeous.  It was obscure.  It had an oak chassis, for God's sake.  And it had a price tag of a mere $2,000. 

(By the way, a quick Google check finds that, in today's dollars, that car, if it were available at a price adjusted for inflation, would cost just over $14,000.  Which I still think is a bargain) (What an irremediable snot I am)

Well, for this amount of money, in 1966, I was told I would need a co-signer, in order to finance the car.  This was the only hurdle I faced, in making this dream vehicle my daily ride back and forth to my new part-time job in Harrisburg.  Because of which part-time job, the $2000 price of the vehicle could be repaid in mere months, I predicted.

Unfortunately, the only resource I had at the time, to act as co-signatories, were my father and step-mother.

And predictably, after I'd hitch-hiked my way across Pennsylvania, and had a silent dinner with the two of them, and my little sisters and my horrid grandmother, and then decided it was time to broach the topic of the car and the loan, there was stunned silence, then sullen anger, and my stepmother revving up to the screaming pitch she used to signal her disapproval.  How dare I even consider spending that much money on my first car!  Who did I think I was?  How dare I think I was so much better than everyone else, to have a car that cost $2000.  (At that point, it's likely that, aside from the house my father and step-mother co-owned, the only thing of similar value either of them had owned was my step-mother's Mercury convertible.  And that had been sold in 1959 -- a bitter loss I doubt my step-mother ever ceased regretting)  Why couldn't I be like other young men, and get a sensible car, like this -- my father consulted the local newspaper's car sales ads -- this Morris Minor, if you have to have your fancy foreign car -- it's for sale here for $50!  Who do you think you are, to pass up a reasonable car like this, and ask us to help you borrow... $2000!?!?!

A Morris Minor, by the way, is like the vehicular equivalent of a June bug.  Whereas the Morgan struck me as a low-slung, purring cat, or a basilisk, capable of turning those who looked at it to solid stone.

Well, the fight didn't end well, as I probably should have known from the beginning.  I hitch-hiked back to Middletown, steaming.  And, because I was 19, and angry, and bored, I decided that I knew what I needed to do next.  I was going to stop being a cyber-nanny.  And I knew exactly what that next thing would be.

There had been listings, posted in the barracks, of aptitude tests for a variety of different career fields where there were openings for new personnel.  One of these was 'radio operator', and because I was 19, and angry, and bored -- to say nothing of ill-informed and delusional -- I decided that this was how I wanted to spend the rest of my enlistment period.  I saw myself in a broadcasting studio, reading the world news between selections of Bach and the Rolling Stones.  Delusional.

So, I inquired about taking the aptitude test, and I was told that there was a problem.  There had been those psychological exams I'd taken, while I was in Amarillo TX, awaiting the computer training I didn't really want.  The results had been... interesting.  After I decided that, regardless of how bad the military would be for me, or how bad I would be for the military, I still didn't want to go back home, I was told that a waiver was being attached to my medical records.  "And any time you feel that the Air Force is not what you want," the red, white and blue psychiatrist told me, "all you have to do is go to your base medical officer, and you can be processed out, any time you like."

At the time, this seemed like a very good fall-back position -- a kind of 'Get Out Of Jail Free' card, only in real life.  But now, as it turned out, this waiver was going to make it impossible for me even to take the radio aptitude test, let alone begin cross-training.  "You'll need to have this removed," I was told.

So.  19.  Angry.  Bored.  I went to the base hospital and explained my situation to one of the doctors there.  He decided that, before any decisions could be made, I needed to take yet another battery of tests.  Bring'em on, I thought.  The only result I remember, from all these boxes to fill in and shapes to match, was discovering that I was eligible for membership in Mensa.  About which I did not care, because I just wanted a different job, and this waiver was in my way.

"Are you sure you want to go ahead with this?" the doctor asked me.  Well, of course I was, I said.  "Are you completely sure?" he repeated.  "Because, once this waiver is removed, it can't be replaced."  I said, innocently and naively, that I was completely sure.

So, with the stroke of a pen or something, I turned in my 'Get Out Of Jail Free' card, expecting a brilliant result of my successful radio operation tests, a stint in a training facility, and then I'd be off to some more interesting work.  Better than toting boxes of paper, I thought.  I contacted the testing office and said now I was ready to go ahead.  Schedule the exams.  I'll be there.  It'll be that easy.

Or so I thought.   

"Well, no," was the response I got, from the testing center.  "When we said you couldn't have that waiver on your medical records, we meant that you could never have had such a waiver...  Which means, sorry buddy, but no radio tests for you."

Whereupon the difference between not having, and not having had, was borne in on me with some weight.  And, while I was digesting this example of military exactitude and precision, I made another, equally disturbing discovery.

The waiver I'd so eagerly dispensed with carried with it, not only the option of leaving active duty whenever I liked, but a guarantee that, having been assigned to the air base in Middletown, I would not be transferred for the duration of my term of enlistment.  Another tidbit of relevant information which was made plain to me only after the metaphoric train had left the station.  So, while I was trudging back and forth, through the tunnel twice a day, to the computer office on the other side of the base, the removal of this waiver was creating an interesting ripple effect through my life.  Suddenly, and again, without realizing what I had done, I had made myself eligible for reassignment.  Redeployment.  Shipment to God only knew where.  Before I had time to worry very much about what this might mean, I found out.

Now, this might seem apocryphal, but the man in charge of duty assignments was an unmarried sergeant, who lived in the same barracks with us lowly enlisted men.  And he was balding, quite chubby, and very very short.  Almost hairless.  Very round.  Very short.  Possibly as short and round as one could be, and qualify for service.  Hairlessness doesn't seem to matter.

On the other hand, I was tall.  Quite tall.  And slender.  With a lot of hair, even for someone in the military.  Another airman had mentioned to me, in passing, that this tiny sergeant really hated all the big guys who were living in the barracks with him.  This seemed vaguely interesting, but as I wasn't the tallest guy in the building, I wasn't especially worried. 

But now, the confluence of height, weight, hairiness and misused verb tenses gelled, and suddenly I found myself staring in disbelief, at the reassignment roster on the barracks bulletin board.  There, where I should never have seen it, was my own name and service number.  And there, in the opposite column, where destinations were listed, I saw the most improbable place name I could have imagined. 


©    2012       Walter Zimmerman



Saturday, July 7, 2012

Three Years, Nine Months (Part Two)

Well, Part One was certainly exhausting, wasn't it?  And I think it covered maybe one whole actual day.  Let's speed things up, as I didn't mean to provide an exhaustive, memory-laden recount of those early days of my military experience -- filled as they were with all sorts of details.  Maybe another time.

* I mainly want to contrast what I lived through, while the Vietnam War was slogging its pointless way through the jungles of Southeast Asia, with what both my contemporaries, and those whose military experiences came much later than mine, experienced.  Here, it occurs to me, I could just make a handy list, just for starters:

* I knew, and for the most part, understood the rules.  They didn't change from day to day, or week to week.

* I had been trained, more or less, to do a job.  When I needed to know something else, in order to do my job, that training was provided, without accompanying complaints of how stupid I was, not to know this already, didn't I have any common sense?

* Once my job schedule had been established, my main concerns were getting to work, staying for my shift, and then... getting to work the next day.  Maintaining my uniforms, and my living space.  Standing for periodic inspections.  Signing my name on a roster every time I had a meal.  That sort of thing. 

And, for good measure, once my technical school training had been completed (I still don't know how I passed -- the only thing I was interested in, in setting up a control board for some weird machine I was expected to operate, were the cool, metal-tipped wires we used, various colors for various lengths.  Even then, I think I recognized those wires as potential materials for weird works of art...), I was sent to Olmsted Air Force Base, in Middletown PA, not two hundred miles from Pittsburgh and its malevolent memories.  So I was still in familiar terrain, instead of having to learn a new language, or adapt to different weather. 

Likewise, let me enumerate some of the good things that began to make themselves apparent to me, even as I began to orient myself to Harrisburg, Highspire and Steelton, the neighboring towns along the bus line:

* I met young men who had been to college, or who were otherwise clearly as intelligent as I was.  They didn't think I was a freak because I knew precisely what word was correct, if I was talking about something.

* I met guys who had, and pursued, different interests than my own.  I think I learned, from watching them work at something, such as learning to play pool, or mastering the guitar, that this was a normal process, and that people didn't generally have magical abilities that enabled them -- presto! -- to walk into a stadium, pick up a trumpet for the first time, and then play a stunning rendition of the Star Spangled Banner before a crowd of fifty thousand baseball fans.

* The money I earned was actually my own, and no one checked to see how much I spent, or on what.  For example, sometimes, on my way back to the barracks from work, I would pass a modest men's shop in a little strip mall (the base was arranged in two parts, with a highway and small business district between Sector A and Sector B, or whatever they called them.  There was a big tunnel under the highway, so we didn't have to cross the road against traffic), and as I passed that modest men's shop, I would realize that, hey, my dry cleaning wasn't going to be ready for another two days, and I didn't have a clean shirt.  So I could just walk into the men's store and buy a new shirt for $5.  No one asked me where I got the money.  No one asked me where I got the shirt.

* With this money that was mine, I was able to buy, finally, books and art supplies, and no one could threaten to take them away, or throw them into the garbage, or otherwise remove them from my life.  I found, to some amazement, that if I wanted to, and my schedule allowed, I could actually spend an entire afternoon in my barracks room, reading.  Not hiding the book so no one would see.  Just sitting at the desk, or lying on my bunk, reading.

And I read Dostoeyvsky, and Tolstoy, and Guy de Maupassant, and Steinbeck and Flaubert, and kept them on a bookshelf in my room.

And I made charcoal drawings, and oil paintings, and sketches and scribblings with India ink and my favorite crow quill pen.

So, this period of my life, from about 17, until I was just turning twenty, was quite idyllic for me, by these measures.  There were, of course, other, less happy events, which I'll get around to, but the main point is that, by comparison with what had been my reality for the past nine and a half years -- or, more than half my life -- the military experience was like having three five-hundred-pound lead plates unstrapped from my back, so I could slowly begin to stretch out and stand up, and see what it was like, to walk and act unencumbered.

Now, for one of the less happy events I mentioned -- and even this, by comparison, is fairly negligible.

One of the airmen I'd first met, when I arrived in Middletown, was a member of the base Honor Guard.  He was an attractive, persuasive kind of guy, and he asked me if I'd like to join.  I said I'd think about it.  He said there was extra pay involved, and travel, and best of all, I would get out of KP duty -- no more cleaning the barracks halls, or scrubbing toilets for me, he said.  I was still uncertain, and said I'd like to see what it was that they did, before I could make up my mind.  He said I could go along, the next time they had an assignment, but that once I'd become a member, I couldn't change my mind.  This part I didn't like.  But I would only be going along to watch, right?

Before very long, there was a notice on the bulletin board, calling all the Honor Guard members to be ready for duty the next morning at some ungodly hour, like 5 am or something.  Thinking about not having to clean toilets, I got myself ready, and climbed on the bus with everyone else.  My recruiter was one of the last on the bus, after everyone else, and he gave me the thumbs-up sign and smiled.  I smiled back, but I was still a little nervous.  I mean, the other guys all had rifles and stuff.

We drove a while.  There wasn't much talking.  Some of the guys fell asleep again.  I think it was early fall.  Leaves had begun falling, and there was a cool dampness in the air.  We arrived at our destination, which, I noticed, was a cemetery.

As we got off the bus, the other guys began putting on their belts and harnesses, and adjusting their rifles.  I was given a special ascot-kind of thing, which fit into the open neck of my tan uniform shirt. I was told just to march along behind everyone else, and obey orders when they pertained to me.

We marched to an open grave.  There was a small crowd of mourners, and a flag-draped casket on a stand.  We were brought to a halt off to one side, slightly behind the group, stood to attention, and then given the order for parade rest.  Because I had to look straight ahead, I couldn't see who it was who was talking -- probably a minister of some kind, to judge by the rise and fall of the voice, and the general tone of the blurry words. 

There must have been a signal, because the sergeant in charge called us to attention again.   The guys with the rifles had them by their sides, and on an order, they raised them all at once and fired.  I'm pretty sure I flinched.  I hadn't expected it to be so loud.  I think they fired again, and then they were done.  There was a mingling of low voices from the gravesite, and we were marched back to the bus.

But we didn't go back to the base.  We went to someone's rural home.  There was barely parking room for the rest of the cars, let alone a big yellow bus.  We picked our way across the damp soil and went up the front steps and inside.

There were family and friends of the deceased, and there was food arranged on a big table in the dining room, and my fellow service members were already helping themselves.  One woman in particular came around to thank each one of us for being there that day.  While she was making her circuit, I noticed a framed photograph on the piano -- a young man of no more than 25.  There was a folded flag on the piano, behind the frame.  When the woman came up to me, I didn't know what to do with my plate of food I didn't really want to eat, but she took my hand anyway, and her eyes were kind of sharp and wet, and I think she said something like, 'He was just about your age...', and then moved on.

At some point, our military crew got back on the bus, and we got back to the base, and everyone pretty much dispersed as they hit the ground -- off to their cars, or their regular assignments.  I forget where I went, or what I was supposed to do, but I did want to let my recruiter know that I just didn't think this was something I wanted to do, ever again.

I'm sure I said something.  I mean, at that point we were working together five days a week, eight hours a day.  (I remember hearing the Rolling Stones singing 'Satisfaction' for the first time, while he was driving me back to the barracks in his Chevy convertible)  I'm sure I told him I didn't want to be part of the Honor Guard.

But somehow, the message never got through.  There were more postings, for more assemblies at equally God-awful hours of the morning, but I just didn't show up.  I figured that should be fairly plain.  I mean, I wasn't there, was I?

But months went by, me sleeping past these duty calls, while at the same time my name was missing from the KP roster, unlike the names of my closest friends and co-workers.  They thought I was paying someone off.  But how could I?  I was spending all my money on books and new shirts.

Then I was called to the First Sergeant's Office, which is like being called to the principal's office in school, only much much worse.  He asked me why I hadn't been at any of the honor guard details recently.  I told him that I thought my first trip with them was just an experiment, and that I was allowed to decline the offer.   Which I thought I'd done.  (I doubt I was this succinct, but the general point was made)

He thought about the situation for a few minutes, and then said, "Well, you've missed quite a bit of clean-up duty, while we assumed you were out on honor guard, so you're going to have to make that up."

I agreed that that was fair, and the meeting was over.

And for a few months after that, I was assigned to barracks duty at least once a week, maybe more.  The thing is, it didn't really bother me.  I mean, after all those miserable Sundays, cleaning my horrid grandmother's restaurant, only to have her come around and disapprove of everything I'd done -- I was probably the best KP guy on the base.  I could handle a squeeze bucket like a pro.  And buffing the waxed hall floors was a sort of meditation, with the whirring hum of the pad, and the back and forth motion, side to side.  Back and forth.  Side to side.  (I think I'm hypnotizing myself...)

Let's let this be today's portion of the slated exploration.  Tomorrow, we may learn something about the importance of the past perfect tense, in an American military career.

©   2012       Walter Zimmerman

Friday, July 6, 2012

Three Years, Nine Months (Part One)

Last October, if I recall correctly, a friend of mine -- whose main interests concern finding homes for abandoned dogs -- told me that a group of veterans was being interviewed by the big local paper, the Newark Star Ledger, and the group was asking for other folks to show up, so there would be more bodies in the room.  Bodies doing things, that is.  Not just lying about. 

This group, my friend went on to say, focuses mainly on making paper from old used military uniforms, and then uses the paper for artworks.  I thought this sounded interesting enough to take the following Sunday off from church (it's rarely difficult to divert my attention), and to drive the 30 or so miles from South Orange, out to Branchburg NJ.  Besides, I would get to drive on Rattlesnake Bridge Road -- how cool is that?

So, I got there, and met some other folks, and learned, in a general sense, what they were about.  There are maybe four or five such groups, each referring to itself as Combat Paper, currently in operation, from San Francisco, to the hills outside Ithaca NY.  The Branchburg incarnation is housed by the New Jersey Print Council, which has an attractive little building down the street from the train station.  In the building are presses and basins and trays of type, a well-lit gallery, and a basement area where the messier paper-making operations can be accommodated.

A couple of the vets were, like me, from the Vietnam era.  The others, fully a generation younger, had served in Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.  It was clear that this group was driving the effort.  I settled into a semi-comfortable position, leaning against a vertical support beam beside a work table, as I learned more about what these people wanted to do, and how I might be able to help.  As I listened, I picked up a seam-ripper and began to undo the sleeve of a fatigue jacket -- a newer one, printed with what the kids call 'digi-camo', devised to fool, not the human eye, but the hi-tech surveillance sights of enemy weaponry.  Stories unfolded.  The newspaper called to say they couldn't make it until the next week.

So, the next week, I came back.  And the week after that.  And the next week too.   Some months later, I feel like something of a regular.

But I still have a haunting sense of ineligibility, about working alongside these young men and women, most of whom have seen, often a matter of inches from their faces, things that would make my most gruesome nightmares seem bland by comparison.  I guess it's a kind of survivor guilt, in a way, in that for me, my service in the Air Force, from the fall of 1964, to the early summer of 1968, was so relatively benign, and actually personally beneficial.  Not that I was all that crazy about the military in general, and specifically, what our military was doing in Southeast Asia at the time, but given that there was a universal draft when I enlisted, I felt fortunate, in many ways.

So today, I thought I'd talk about that particular chapter in my life, though it's going to make me profoundly uncomfortable to do so.

Some of it, of course, some of you reading already know -- for instance, the battery of psychological tests I took, while awaiting tech school training, and which revealed that, to quote the doctor reporting the results to me, 'The Air Force wouldn't be good for you.  And you wouldn't be good for the Air Force.'  (I'm still sorry I didn't have the sense to ask for more specifics, about what harm or damage I might wreak, my own little self, on what I considered a monolithic military institution.  I felt oddly dangerous, like maybe a plague-infested flea)  And this may prove to be more than can be contained in one posting -- either that, or my fingers may give out -- I notice that I've already depleted my computer battery down into the teens of percentage of power -- but at least, getting started, I'm that much more likely to finish.  Being generally the responsible type, as long as the results are easily reached, and don't matter very much.

So.  Let's begin.

It's the third week of September, 1964.  My summer job, in the disreputable amusement park some miles from my home in McKeesport PA, was over, and there were no plausible prospects for other employment.  I did have an interview, for a position of stock clerk in one of the city's upscale men's wear stores, but when the interviewer threatened to end my working career in Pennsylvania if I didn't do this job correctly, I thought maybe unloading boxes of shirts was too extreme for me.  My parents had made an ultimatum -- you're out of the house by the end of September, with either a job or a military enlistment.  Because I was only 17, my father would have to sign the necessary papers.  I suspect he always had a pen handy, about that time.

I chose the Air Force partly because my father had been in the Army Air Corps, at the end of WW II, and partly because, even though my eyes are more brownish, I thought I'd look better in a blue uniform.  The Army enlistment officer had been very lavish, in outlining the various programs I would be eligible for, once certain ill-defined criteria had been met; I thought I'd better choose the blue trousers to the brown ones.  My father, who had exerted no pressure one way or the other, just wanted to write his name on something that would remove my place from the dinner table as quickly as possible. 

Sept. 21st was selected as the day of transition.  (Don't worry about the level of detail here -- there will be whole years that won't be described at all)  We drove into Pittsburgh in the fading light of early evening, to some great stone building.  We went inside, stood in line for a while, and finally my father got to use his pen, and leave his famous scrawl (all my brothers and I have copied it.  As there are no Zimmerman boys, it will die with us) on my enlistment papers, obligating me to four years of service to the United States Air Force.  I wonder if I thought at all, right then, about the early American use of indentured servitude?  Wasn't that usually seven years, I recall?  So really, I was getting off easy.  Wasn't I?

My father put his pen away, and then said goodbye.  And there I was, alone, standing by my horrid grandmother's green suitcase, which I'd had to borrow for the occasion, and I was in the midst of a  troop of other young men who were equally alone.  With their suitcases.  It makes me think of a ballet, for some reason.

Anyway, we were gathered up and shuffled through a series of rooms, where we filled out more forms, and answered questions, usually as a group.  I especially recall the pudgy leering sergeant who guided us through a health-related form -- 'Any of you queer?' he asked.  There was a general lurid chuckle through the room.  I wonder if I blushed.

Finally, all forms having been completed, the thirty or so of us were brought to yet another room, where we filed into two lines, and were then administered the Air Force Oath.  I don't remember a single word of it.  That done, we picked up our suitcases again, and boarded a bus for the airport, where we were then put on an airplane bound for Chicago.  One of the older enlistees, with a year of college under his belt, was put in nominal charge of us, but as we were all just sitting on an airplane, that didn't seem to mean much.  

This was my first flight, ever, and I don't remember it at all.  What I do remember is the layover in Chicago -- maybe two hours, while all the concessions were closed.  Some of us wandered about a bit, and then tried to sleep on the ultra-uncomfortable seating.  When our next flight, to San Antonio Texas, was finally ready, it must have been after midnight.

I later learned that all of this, from the evening sign-in, to the lay-over in Chicago, was designed to disorient us.  It certainly worked.

Well, goodness -- speaking of disorientation -- just look at the time!  Here I am, describing my military experience, and using all this time for barely half of the first day!  As I said, though, it will soon blur (if it hasn't already), and readers may understand why I feel so unworthy, standing next to my much-younger fellow veterans in Branchburg, and disassembling uniforms that have been worn in places I can only imagine.

More, then, to come...

©   2012          Walter Zimmerman

Thursday, July 5, 2012

What I'm Trying to Do

So, here's what I'm going to try to do. 

Even though I don't have Lent as a time-support, I think I want to return to something like a daily writing discipline.  For me, of course.  (I had a friend from Buffalo NY, a writer, who told me, when I said I thought my journal entries were too doleful and negative, "Journals are always whiny."  So at least I knew that either I wasn't doing anything wrong, or everyone was)

Well, I seem to be encased in this isolation, for some reason.  I don't even want to answer the telephone.  I haven't signed onto Facebook in I don't know how long, and now that it's become the major medium for social converse, at least among folks of a certain age, I might as well have moved to some deep little valley in the Himalayas, where electricity can't get through.  In a way, I think of it as being dead. 

Ah, being dead.  My favorite stumbling block.  I've noticed, on AOL News (regrettably, the sole source of outside information I consult these days.  I could have great complexion, and know what Kim said to Michelle, if I cared) that there have been some surveys recently, charting the degree of belief and non-belief in God, among Americans.  The articles haven't been all that detailed about how the study was done, or how many people were asked, but what interested me was the consternation expressed by two journalists, at the fact that some 31% of young people expressed a doubt in a Supreme Being. 

Readers of this blog will perhaps remember how divergent my own religious views are, contrasted with strict orthodoxy, as laid out by the Episcopal Church.  (I guess the Presbyterians have something like this too, but that predetermination hurdle is just too much for me to bear)  When I've taken those online political quizzes, that claim to place the individual taking the test on some kind of political spectrum, I generally end up 'way left, with the Czech Communists.  I have no idea where I'd end up, if there were a similar test for religious beliefs.  I might actually be a Wiccan?

Anyway, my latest complaint, if you will, is this: if someone believes that there is a caring, all-knowing Deity, looking out for us in our daily lives on the planet (I'm restraining myself here, for brevity's sake), why on earth hasn't that caring, all-knowing deity explained, or made transparent to us, the meaning, experience, and consequences of death?  There's certainly been enough time.  There's plenty of material to work with -- no end of burnt toast to use, if all else fails.

I'm thinking now of a little event I witnessed, years ago, when I was much more observant and fervent and a couple of other -ents.  I had joined some of my fellow believers at the modest home one of them had made available for a religious and social function.  While we were all still getting ourselves settled, while the pleasant hum of agreeable conversation lay like a layer of incense in the room, a blonde little girl of about six came into the room.  She was wearing a blue dress, and shiny black shoes.  There was a group of seven of us adults gathered near the stairwell, and she came over, and stood before the person furthest to my right.

"Am I going to die?" she asked.  She had a kind of smile on her face.  The young man shook his head no.  The little girl moved over one step, and looked at the next young man, who was sitting on the floor.

"Am I going to die?" she asked.  This young man shook his head no as well.

I figured I was about number five in this group, and we could all clearly hear what she was asking, from the first.  And even though I was trying my best to figure out a non-damaging way to answer her question honestly, when she came and stood in front of me, and asked her single question, I lied just like everyone else.

Maybe, if one of us had been older, one of us could have fielded this question with more grace and truth.  "Yes, my dear, everyone who is born must die."  Spreading out the burden -- like pointing out that everyone's getting that nasty stomach virus that's making your life hell -- seems a tine-honored tactic.  It's the next, logically connected question that's the stumbling block.  It's when the little blonde girl in the blue dress and shiny shoes asks why.

Well, don't you know, I seem to be terribly, terribly stuck.  I can't honestly tell if I'm having a kind of temper tantrum, like a three-year-old, and refusing to... get over it.  But this topic, for me, seems to be insurmountable.  (It's also not what I thought I'd be writing about.  But there you are)  It threatens to take all the savor out of life -- for me, it reduces everything I do to some stupid, meaningless dance of evasion.  And the additional horror, of realizing that I surely can't live long enough, at this point, to be able to rectify and redeem all the things I've screwed up in my life.  Much less use all my oil paint. 

Oddly enough -- very oddly, as a matter of fact, given the isolation I mentioned before -- the one 'thing', if you will,  that I seem to be able to identify for myself, clearly and unambiguously, as being of tremendous value and maybe even ultimate reality, is the caring and committed relatedness that can exist between human beings.  I'm not talking solely about marriage here -- I'm talking about the way, if I ask someone at the cash register how she is, she seems genuinely surprised that I notice that she's there, and she tells me a little, fifteen-word story.  For some crazy reason, this seems to be what I value most highly now. 

I wonder where that little blonde girl is now, whether she's still alive or not.  Whether, if she had children herself, she'd be able to tell them the truth.

Tomorrow, I want to talk about paper.

©  2012         Walter Zimmerman


Friday, June 29, 2012


Last night, in bed, I wanted to be dead. 

Bedtime was earlier than usual.  I'd spent the evening drawing while not paying much attention to the TV, and also making a mess in the den, losing and finding again my three lead pencils and the sharpener I discovered on a shelf upstairs.  I'd played the useless but addictive word game I've begun to think of as oracular, annoyed that one game had gotten to the point of offering me the challenge of making a standard English word out of z,x, g, h, and two r's.  I'd washed the few dishes resulting from a dinner of leftovers from last night's meal.  John had gone on ahead -- he's the lark, and I'm the owl.  Mice and voles beware.

Arriving at the sleeping platform (I'd made the bed earlier, because John likes it that way, and I can do so little, it seems, to be of positive benefit in his life.  Pulling up a couple of blankets shouldn't be beyond my reach), and lying down in gratitude for the air conditioner, I lapsed helplessly into a kind of emotional regurgitation of the day's despair.  Maybe if I'd tried sleeping, sitting up?  I went back to the deep-breathing exercises I'd learned (improperly, I'm sure) from the teachings of some crackpot East Indian mystic named (by himself) Osho -- I found this big, shiny brown hard-bound book in a Philadelphia bookstore years earlier, and it bore the improbable title 'Book of Secrets'.  I was amused that something so big could pretend to be covert.  But it was cheap.  And amusing.

So, I tried anal breathing again, pretending that air was coming in where, logically, it can't, and seeing how far I could inflate my capacious lungs, and wondering if my now-automated heart could react as it used to do -- slowing 'way down, relaxing as it were, from its ceaseless, unappreciated labors.  I was good for about six of these deep breaths before I lost interest, or was again overcome by this useless, tarry grief with which I seem fated to live.

(Maybe I was upset because I'd just told my sister Barbara -- who lives in Florida and, in spite of my early influence, now thinks in terms of Bible readings and the movement of The Spirit -- that I wasn't going to be able to join her on her trip out to Oregon, to see our brother George.  The one who's got lung cancer that he's decided not to treat.  The one who's signed his life over to an acquaintance who comes in to pay his bills and make sure he washes himself.  The one who's always wanted to have written.  The verb tense being of especial importance here.  As in,  'It's too bad I couldn't have blueberries with my breakfast this morning.  I wish I had planted some.'

Even though George and I were especially close during the very earliest years of our childhood -- him being 2 1/2 years younger than me, and so my first in-house playmate -- from about the time he was maybe 6 or so, our lives diverted into different streams, and he became a kind of irritating, irrational stranger to me.  Or maybe I should say that, with the spectacular excesses of his life -- we've lost count of the ex-wives, the children who may or may not have been his own, the guns and hostage negotiations, the dwellings and phone numbers and places of employment -- he merely proved to be who I might have been, if I'd decided to write my entire life in capital letters.  I recoil from who I might have been -- someone from whom, to certain others, I might well be indistinguishable.

So I couldn't see any point, really, in traveling six thousand miles round trip, to look at a man for whom I feel such impatient anger.  To say nothing of the potential horror of looking into my own not-to-distant future, where I, too, am living in a rural setting, in a collapsing trailer, with weeds in the driveway, and cat food in the pantry)

So, possibly resonating to my own hard-heartedness and/or sibling guilt, I lay down on one of the 'magic blankets' -- the polar fleece ones that instantly return warmth -- and decided that maybe, if I concentrated really really hard, I could simply cease to be a living entity.  If I tried to ignore physical sensations, and thoughts, and those annoying little flare-ups of emotion, I might somehow slip out of my own annoying body, and... do whatever the disembodied dead do.

Of course, this didn't work.  I kept slipping into fretful dreams about my computer (this very computer) deciding to cease operation just at the critical point, and then I would startle awake again, to realize that I was still lying on my side, on top of a magic blanket, in the dark bedroom, waiting and hoping that, by sheer concentration, I could cancel what has lately become a deeply unsatisfying subscription to this whole bad inhale/exhale comedy.

Then I went to sleep in earnest (quel surprise -- I'm sure you didn't see that coming), and woke up later in the middle of the middle of a vigorous storm of thunder and lightning.  What you might expect, as a child, if your parents came home, unexpectedly, and drunk. and find you dancing around the house naked but for your step-mother's costume jewelry, with the stereo playing the Peer Gynt suite at ear-splitting levels, and with saltines spread with peanut butter all over the kitchen counter... Among other things.  An explosion in every room.  The bright light indistinguishable from being slapped across the face with a strong, open hand.  And waiting for the next one.  Do we have a fire escape plan?  Or is it every cat for himself?

The storm passes.  And then there's the dream.  If you're like me, and hate to read about other people's dreams, just stop here, now.

I am in a dense, crude village -- an old place, bearing the marks of much trade.  I am searching for a particular establishment, and stop into many others in my progress.  I have a companion -- a woman, I think, though her gender seems unemphasized by her garments, her femininity betrayed only in her slight, sharp features and a kind of piercing quality to her intelligent questions and pointed arguments.
To make my own point, in this long dispute, I resort to a little book, hardly the size of the palm of my hand.  It's a kind of hybrid volume -- some of the pages seem to be of mica instead of paper, and I'm not particularly amazed that, when I turn one leaf or another, I'm looking into the book instead of at it.  It changes sizes as we walk and argue.  When I reach the book's end, I simply flip it over and begin again, the other direction, and it shows a completely new series of images and problems.

I stop, with my companion, outside a noisy establishment.  There's a low, broad table at the entrance, and an array of drinking vessels spread out for the patrons.  I pick two, one slightly larger than the other, and watch as they're filled with a dark, thick brew.  I'm tempted to take the more generous portion, but there's something about the way the smaller glass sheds a layer from its side, like a crystal cleaving with no one touching it, and I choose this little glass to bring with me.  I go down three steps, and duck into the thick-walled entrance way.  The heavy windowless door opens.

I'm in a space filled with warm, honey-colored light.  The many inner spaces, opening one into another with an enviable ease, are populated solely by men.  Youngish men, in their thirties or early forties perhaps.  All closely-shorn red-heads (so you know it's a dream), dressed like some of the more important extras in a Scots-themed film with maybe Brad Pitt in it, so the costume budget is good.  And lying on another wide plank table, off to one side from the entrance, is a naked, red-headed man, with that translucent, opal-blue skin of the fair-haired.  He lies there in complete, sumptuous unconcern, and his flagrant, statuesque nakedness seems unremarkable to his fellow guests. 

The air is thick with energized talk.  I've reached one of the inner spaces, and overcome with a wordless, but powerful emotion, I simply take my place at an open spot in the center of the floor, and raise my damaged, but still-brimming glass.  In a wordless moment, all glasses there, and throughout this place, are brought up at arms' length, and high.  There is a peak of tense, virile expectation.

And there you are.  At the ungodly hour of six am, I wake up from this unusually rich inner escapade (I know there were other rooms and other encounters, but what little I can remember of them is dark and blurred), obviously still not dead, and feeling powerfully moved by these images, and the emotions that have come with them.

I don't want to analyze this dream, because that seems disrespectful, and a waste of time.  Like trying to pin down an uninjured goshawk with a handful of straight pins.

I feel a particular kind of grief -- as though I've just discovered a club I'm now too old to join.  I feel voraciously hungry, on a symbolic level.  I find myself wondering about the other men in the fairy tales -- the elder brothers who were humorless and cruel.  What were their later lives like?  What happened to the magic potential that seemed, on occasion, to peek through into my own life?  I seem to feel a need for a kind of sub-verbal companionship, or a potentially carnal experience, to which I've never felt entitled.  I've been so afraid, much of my life.  I've made many embarrassing emotional mistakes, because I wouldn't listen to what I was clearly being told.  And of course, what I'm remembering now, and resonating to, was a dream, with all the benefits that dreams bring, and as with genuine dreams, none of the mechanisms for translating -- who knows what?  A cramped leg?  A breeze from the air conditioner?  A half-digested almond? -- the dream's most potent, poignant essence into something that can bear common touch, or withstand the light of day.

I still want to be dead.  Maybe this was an unanticipated preview of the kind of heaven I might create for myself.  I don't think it's a subconscious call to relocate to Glasgow.  But none of us will ever know, will we?  This morning, if I thought prayer would help, I would grovel on my face without shame, to find the way back.       

 ©    2012   Walter Zimmerman

The Y Chromosome, Revisited

As the next round of home repairs reaches its end...

When the house was painted just a couple of weeks ago, we agreed with the painters that the old (copper) gutters were in very bad shape -- twisted, sagging, and in need of more repair than we could afford.  So we opted to have the old gutters taken down (I quickly laid claim to the metal, though God only knows what I'll do with still more crap, strewn across the back of the driveway...), to be replaced with new ones, made with... dental floss?  Tin foil?  I don't know.  But they're almost all up, and look much better, so far.  And best of all, the guy doing the work has offered to give us an estimate on what it would take, to channel the gutter downspouts, and the sump pump output, toward the front yard and into the street.  What a miracle.  All I have to do. while all this is happening, is to sit here and listen to various clankings and whirrings, and then write a check.

While I wait, I thought I would write a bit more about my father -- that last entry was more about what I didn't know, in terms of his personal history.  The tidbits that he had let drop, during the course of my living in his house.  But there are three more brief interchanges with him, that I'd like to describe, if only to keep their memory a little clearer in my own mind.

First though, let me seem to diverge.

Years ago, when I was an undergraduate at Penn State, there was a photography show in the Zoeller Gallery, then the main art venue for the State College campus.  I remember one photo in particular, and wish I had bought it, it was so powerful and ambiguous, in its apparent clarity.  This black and white photo was of modest size -- certainly no bigger than 8 1/2" x 11" -- and would be classified as a portrait, I guess.  Very close to the picture plain, we see a young boy's face -- he's maybe 10 at the oldest, with straight blond hair he might just have brushed out of his big, dark eyes.  There's a sunburnt quality to his face, and the sense that he's just eaten something -- a sandwich, or an apple -- his mouth looks active, as though he's about to speak.  Held up close, beside his face, is a photograph.  The boy is holding it, not at one corner, with thumb and forefinger, as he would a flimsy piece of paper, but as though the image were printed on a piece of board, or a plate of glass -- we see the ends of his fingers along the top of the picture, and his thumb down at the bottom.  The image of this photograph-within-a-photograph is of an old, old man, shrunken and weak-looking, wrapped in a standard hospital gown, and lying in a hospital bed.  A feeding sack off to one side, I seem to recall.  Some various tubes draped down onto the bed behind him.

To most viewers, I suppose, it would seem an ordinary enough image.  But I found it riveting.  There was a frank directness in that young boy's gaze -- a directness in those great dark eyes that seemed to include a foreboding, some difficulty he sensed was on its way, but some distance off yet, maybe back there, behind the photographer's head.  The way the boy held that photograph, and the implied solidity, or inflexibility of the image, made me wonder if perhaps the boy was holding a mirror, and  the camera was in that hospital room, with the old man sitting there, waiting.  Or -- and this possibility was the most exciting of all, because it was both impossible and somehow true  -- I thought that maybe this boy was holding up his own photograph, from deep in his own future, or that this mirror he held showed what he himself was looking back at with such a poignant gaze: he himself, sitting on rumpled sheets, and peering near-sightedly at his younger self.

One further extension of the possibilities -- the whole image, the whole photograph was a reflective surface, showing me, the viewer, how I might have looked, twenty-some years before, and staring the dissolution of my own body straight in the face (having grabbed a cookie, in case there wouldn't be any more); grimly holding up the smaller mirror, which of course gives the dreaded preview of some decades into the future, into a different sort of dissolution.   The involuntary one, involving the cave-in of the vehicle itself, with the occupant is still trapped inside, bewildered, unable to release the seat belt or open the window far enough, so he can climb out, before submersion is complete...

And now, without the benefit of photographs, or magic shards of mirror...

Once, my father took my brothers and me on a drive into Pittsburgh.  We rarely went so far from home, except to visit his sister, my Aunt Marie, who lived up near the orphanage, in Butler County.  Today's trip would be closer to home.

My brothers and I didn't like being together in the car much -- there were four of us, and even with someone in the front seat beside our father (me, because I was the oldest), there would be some teasing or torment, or bickering, or joking -- we were always being yelled at, which only drove the mischief deeper, where, under pressure, it was sure to come exploding out again in a few minutes, because one of us had looked at the other, and a geyser of giggles and squirming would burst out.  Pittsburgh is a twenty-mile drive from where we lived at the time -- there was much yelling, sulking, and sputtering of suppressed laughter by the time we'd reached the first of the tunnels we had to drive through, to get into Pittsburgh itself.

I hated the tunnels.   Like most, our car didn't have air conditioning, and the tunnels themselves weren't ventilated to the extent that's standard today.  I hated the exhaust smell, and the brownish fog hanging at the tunnel's entry and exit.  I made it a standard practice to hold my breath for as long as possible, while we were underground.  On a recent drive through Pittsburgh, my full-grown lungs easily held me, all the way through.  As a kid, I usually gasped out my failure about 3/4 of the way through, and then tasted the harsh, rust-colored, incoming vapors.   These could do no one any good.

We seemed to be just wandering around, not going to any of the few usual places we went.  Then my father slowed down and came to a stop in front of a row of two-story, yellow brick homes, in the Mt. Lebanon section of the city.  These houses were barely detached, with narrow sidewalks between them, where it's doubtful any sun ever shone.  There were little bricked-in front porches facing the street, and three or four steps down to the common city sidewalk.  To me, these little houses looked identical.  Dark roofs.  Windows with drawn curtains.  Nobody talking a stroll, or walking a dog.  No sign of kids -- a bicycle or something.

Then my father said, "Here's where I used to live."  And that was all.  Nothing else.  We just sat there in the back seat, looking.  We didn't even know which of these buildings was The One.  We didn't know when he'd lived there, or who'd lived next door.  Were there any adventures he remembered?  How deep did the snow get in the winter?  How hot was it in the summer?  Was there a yard in the back, or a playground nearby?  How far away was the school?  Did he change, between grade school and high school?  Which window was his?

We sat silent, and I remember watching my father watch his old house, trying to catch, somehow, some microscopic change in his posture, or some turn of his head, to indicate that he was having a particular kind of thought right then.  I couldn't imagine my brothers and me, sitting in front of our old house in Belleville, without breaking into hoots of laughter.   We'd spied on the neighbor across the street as he mowed his lawn, and made up stories about all sorts of violent things he must have done, judging him solely by the vicious way he pushed his stubborn little mower.  Mr. Man, we called him.  Did my father had a similar bogey man in his past?

He never said.  We sat, for something between five and ten minutes, I'd say.  Then my dad started the car again, and we drove away.  We never went back there again.

Years later, my father's house was in McKeesport -- a two-and-a-half story detached brick building, with a small brick-walled front porch.  Painted yellow.  At the time, my father was dying of cancer.  My brothers and sisters and I had all come to town, for a kind of pre-funereal reunion I guess you could say, if you were heartless like me.  And the whole family (the 'whole shooting match', as my father would say) was supposed to go to the famous local amusement park, for a day of rides and bad food.  But Dad came down with a slight case of pneumonia, so he had to spend a couple of days in the hospital, just when we were all there for this special event.  Our stepmother decided that, if he wasn't going, she'd stay home too.

So there were at least the six of us -- one of my brothers couldn't make it.  Barbara was pregnant with her second child.  Michelle's husband Gregg was along for the day.  I remember was George being insulted that I would rather go on any number of roller-coasters, than take in a flying lesson with him.  The day held no particular revelations.  I don't think I even got sunburnt.

But before I went back home, I visited my Dad in his hospital room.  He was sitting in a chair near the bed.  As usual, he didn't have much to say.  We just looked at each other.

I was trying to work up the courage to tell him that I was gay -- which couldn't have been much of a shock at that point, as I'd already been living with John for a few years, and I'd told my father, during one of our tri-monthly phone calls, that John and I were looking to buy a house in Minneapolis, or Columbus, or Eau Claire, or any of the various places we'd gone to visit John's friends.  One doesn't buy houses with a casual buddy.   

And my father had long seemed preoccupied with my sexual orientation, I guess you'd say.  At the time, at six or so, I didn't know why he and my mother seemed so worried, so focused and attentive, but only about specific parts of my life.  Which side I parted my hair on.  How the 's' sound came out of my mouth.  Which of the toys they'd brought into the house were my favorite playthings.  Whatever it was I did, I knew something was wrong.  Something very wrong.  There was, and always would be,  just... some... something... wrong.
So all these years later, long after the Stonewall Riots (about which I'm sure my father knew absolutely nothing), sitting in a hospital room in McKeesport PA, I still found it impossible to open my mouth and say 'Dad, I'm gay.'  I couldn't do it.  I was uncomfortable, sitting in yet another hospital chair and silently facing him.  I'm sure the expression on my face approximated that of a careless motorist who'd just run over someone's prize-winning cat,, much more closely than it did a grown-up son, trying to voice to his own father a commonly-known fact about the son's own life.  I was still frightened of him.  Where would he send me this time?

And him?  He just looked at me -- was it the illness?  The medication?  Or the vulgar, careless health I brought with me into the room?  The sheer plenitude of life-expectancy I carried so carelessly?  I was certainly unaware, personally, of having in my possession anything that could benefit anyone, least of all to myself.  Something with me being... wrong, after all.  Still, he looked at me, and I recall most clearly the coldness of his eyes -- watery, hazel green eyes, always seen behind his glasses -- I felt, right then, that I was up to the bridge of my nose in a deep pool of warm murky water, and across from me, lying on a half-submerged log, was a great, ancient and dispassionate crocodile.  Waiting to decide what to destroy next.

I kept my open secret to myself.

And finally, less than a year later, there was the one last visit I would have with my father.  John and I had planned and paid for our second-ever trip to Europe -- we were going to see American friends in Germany, French friends in France, and, unexpectedly, a famous painting in Colmar.  While packing, I was particularly aware that on this trip, I would finally be in Paris.   Then I got a phone call from my father's house -- my youngest sister, telling me that our father was in the hospital again, and that this time, the doctors gave him between three days and three weeks to live.

I put aside Paris, threw some things in a smaller bag, and flew to Pittsburgh, then drove out to McKeesport, to my father's house.  My two sisters and one of my brothers were there.  My step-mother's mother was still alive, holding sway over the kitchen as usual.  All the televisions in the house were on, tuned to different channels.  My brothers and sisters and step-grandmother were all shouting at each other.  I agreed maybe too eagerly when my stepmother asked me to spend the afternoon in the hospital with my father, so she could do some errands.  I could come back again the next day, she said, if I decided to stay over.

Propped up in his bed in the cancer ward, he instantly knew who I was, which I'd been warned might not be the case, as he was getting intravenous morphine for the pain.  He told me, so clearly and certainly, that my sister Barbara had won $3 million in the Florida lottery, that I forgot I'd been warned about his delusions, and especially, this particular one. 

Other than that, there wasn't much to do or say.  I found a chair and sat down.  He lay back against his pillows.  He would gasp with pain now and wrench to one side, exclaiming 'O Sweet Jesus'.  I couldn't imagine what it might feel like, with or without the drugs.

The doctor stopped in for just a moment.  I introduced myself ('Is there no end of this family?', he may well have thought), and repeated what I'd been told.  "My sister says he looks much better today.  He just needed more salt."

"The man is dying," the doctor said flatly, and his look was stern, pitiless, almost contemptuous, as though I'd brought him a sparrow that was run over by a truck, and was standing there with it lying in my extended hand, waiting for him to fix it.  Clearly, I and all my kind were just wasting his time.  He was out the door again.

My father dozed.  I was ill at ease, and a little light-headed.  As usual, I hadn't eaten breakfast, and I needed something in my system or I was sure I'd pass out.  But I was afraid that if I left the room, to take care of my vulgar personal needs, he would pick that particular moment to die, and how would I explain that to everybody?  Finally, I steeled myself for a dash to the cafeteria, which was closed between breakfast and lunch, so I had to make my selection from the hodge-podge of junk in the vending machines.  My hands full, I ran back to the elevator and to his room, where he was still sleeping comfortable.  I ate peanut-butter-and-cheese crackers, self-conscious about the crinkling of wrappers and splaying of crumbs.  Then I settled into a kind of rhythm -- turn my head to the right, and watch my dying father sleep, then turn my head to the left, to take in what little I could see of the old, unoccupied steel mills, lying sprawled along the river, a few blocks away.

My father's face seemed unaffected by his illness -- though his hair looked as though he'd been given a buzz cut, it was still growing back in after the last round of chemotherapy (would it be blond again this time, or grey, or nut-brown?  Chemo can be so whimsical)  Otherwise, his coloring was fairly good, and there were no surface traces of the deep pain that made him gasp.  I thought it quietly ironic, that printed on the flimsy hospital gown, as a decorative pattern, were little shields, arranged in pairs.  Pathetic, I thought -- but also dimly resonant, given the way people used to revere such symbols -- here they were, thinned-down, shrunken remnants of a once-robust faith, powerful shields now demoted to guard duty on these flimsy bits of mock clothing.

And then I was considered the mills, lining all available riverbanks in the area.  They had raged, day and night, when I first saw them, decades earlier.  The industry I knew of, in Illinois, lay in great green fields of corn.  But in McKeesport, the night sky was a sullen, cloudy, orange-black, always.  My father's house -- his next-to-last one, that is, blue clapboard, with the open front porch no one ever used -- sat in a neighborhood deep in the first valley behind the steep hills running along the rivers.   Looking out the attic window, where I slept at night, I had a hellish view -- the silhouette of the height opposite, looking like a long, diseased gum line, punctuated with crooked teeth.  Impenetrable, powdery black.  Backed by brick-colored clouds that blossomed into orange and scarlet, and then gave out even brighter bursts, great searing belches of light, up and down the valley, all through every night.

Now, that day, as I saw if from my father's hospital room, it all lay cold and inert.  The fires had long since been put out.  You might even be able to see stars overhead at night now, instead of some full-scale preview of the underworld.  All there was left now were vast expanses of corroding metal, the mill roofs, tilted at that one particular shallow angle, designed that way for a purpose, to shelter great working, but now with all their life gone out of them.  I wondered how long would it take for the miles and miles of these rusting relics to break down?  I guessed it would look, by then, as though years of night clouds had been summoned back into gassy existence, then compressed, and scraped out of the sky, to fall, useless, to the ground. 

A nurse brought in a lunch tray, and at the noise, my father woke up.  It was just a simple meal -- a hamburger, some french fries, and strawberry jello.  He wanted the jello first, but couldn't manage the spoon, so I fed him -- thereby completing the circle so many come to know, thenow-adult child caring for the parent.  He seemed unaffected by this switch in our roles.  He managed the finger food much better, and I was actually startled by the sharpness of his appetite -- the attention with which he focused on the sliced tomatoes, the vigor of his biting and chewing that bit of ground meat.  There was not trace of some romanticized Victorian delicacy here -- just a man unapologetically eating a meal.  As he might, if he were alone, at a camp site, down by the river perhaps, with the next day's journey in mind.

By the time he'd finished, and I wiped his chin with a napkin, my stepmother was back, and it was time for me to go back to the house.  When I told my dad I was leaving, he scurried to get out of bed, because he thought he was coming too.  I was surprised at my own pain, seeing him clambering there, with the morphine tubing still in place, a living thing wanting out of its box.

Back at the house, I asked my brothers and sisters if should I stay for the last days of my father's life, or go ahead with the planned trip, staying in touch for what we all knew was inevitable?  They all asked that there be a phone number available, wherever John and I would stay.  They thought that, having seen my father alive, I had bestowed whatever little gift was left in my power to give.

So, I flew back to Jersey City.  We flew to Europe.  I lay in our hotel bed in Paris, watching reruns of 'The Avengers' on TV -- in English, with French subtitles.  And my father died while I was away, on the very last day of the trip, when we were already on our way home.      

Now, years later, I think about that photgraph from long ago, and wonder what a photo of my father and me might have looked like -- a magic picture like the one I didn't have the wisdom to grab when I saw it.  Would it show my face, as a tense, dirty nine-year-old with stolen chocolate on his cheek, holding up the mirror to show the dark delusional man, lying in a hospital bed in a town where the skies used to be red at night?  Or would it be his face, as the bewildered boy with the yellow brick house, his mother gone off to be insane, his father gone off to make another fortune, leaving him -- the only son -- to hold up the mirror to show a sad, bewildered man, hair awry, moustache shocked white, sitting at a kitchen table, in tears because he can't ever seem to understand anything anymore, and because the world won't hold still long enough for him to get a better look. 

©    2012               Walter Zimmerman