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