The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

Category : Articles

On memes, dupes, friendship and Freedom.

This isn’t a political post. Honest. But it’s about your politics. We need to talk.

If you make political posts to social media, using memes you share from elsewhere, sooner or later you’re going to get caught with one that is blatantly false. You shared it because it said something you already thought was true, were prepared to believe was true, or wanted to believe was true because it supported your candidate, your cause, or your opinion.

But it was false. Not just “oh, we made a mistake” kind of false, but turns out it was insidiously crafted to appear true, to appeal to you and those who believed like you, all the while being a bald-faced lie.

You were duped.

It happens, sooner or later. There’s a little bit of shame to it, but nothing you can’t shake off.

But did you ever stop to wonder about who it was who made that post? Did it ever come to mind to really contemplate the full scope of the origins of these things – of what had transpired?

Think about it. Someone – someone who knew better – sat down and connected a series of facts they knew full well were false, to paint a picture designed to mislead the potential viewer, You.

That person did it on purpose.

Who were they? Were the part of a party subcommittee of an organization who’s task it is to create propaganda? Do they work from the knowledge that even the most blatant lies are bought into by a certain percentage of people? Do they ever think, in the late evening when they’re alone, about the fact that their work for that day was a known, intentional deception?

And what about you? What did they intend for you? When the deceivers created the meme, they weren’t thinking about those they consider the Opposition. They knew full well they’d never get anywhere close to those who already disagree with them using this method. It is you who are the intended victim. When they set out to deceive, you are the target of the lie. You. and your friends, and your friends’ friends…those who think like you already are targeted to become a standing army of willingly deceived carriers in a game of power being played out upon your backs. And as with many an abusive relationship, you excuse them, make excuses for them, intentionally blink over the facts and fight for them using raw emotion – and the ego that doesn’t want to acknowledge that you’ve been used.

And what’s to become of your friends, the ones who agree with your points of view, who will wake up in the morning and see the meme that you shared – the one that was a lie from the beginning, targeting you? Those friends aren’t getting the lie from its source. They’re getting it from you. You have become, like many victims of abuse do, the abuser yourself. Look your friends in the eye. If time and distance prevents it, pull up a picture on your screen, and look that friend’s picture in the eye. Are you going to lie to them? Are you willing to target them with an abusive attempt at thought control? Which is more important to you? The friend? Or your abuser’s designs for using you?

If your friends are more important, then when you come across a meme that speaks something you want to say, check it first. Check it hard. Use sources you know want to put it down, see what they have to say. Protect your friendships first and foremost, don’t let mutually accepted lies and deceit substitute for friendship. Resist the attempt by outside forces to trick you into believing in your independence, when the only freedom is theirs, to sway you at their whim into taking action on their behalf, to solidify their power.

Government of a free people is not a means itself to an end. It is only the tool to prevent others from forcing us to be their means to their ends against our will. Choose to be part of “the people” first – a faithful and respectful friend.

This technology we’ve invented for ourselves – it shrinks our world, allows us to be communal beings without the limitation of physical presence. It sometimes shrinks us too far, to the point of being nothing but a pulsing ego in a fantastical world of our own imagination, inattentive to the other aspects of our humanity. Don’t let your world shrink until it is only you, and an invented, inhuman notion of controlled servants. Let others be free.

Be free.

The Mighty Viking’s Theory of the Hows and Whys:

The Mighty Viking’s Theory of the Hows and Whys:

Friends, we all know that one guy, the guy who, in high school, broke everything he touched.  Every project he built, every car he worked on, every desk he sat in broke, came out mangled, never worked again, in some cases managed to mangle or bleed someone – as often as not himself, unintentionally.

And every so often, he wouldn’t come to school for a couple days.  Some say he was recovering.  Some say the principle didn’t appreciate the help fixing light bulbs, or bathroom fixtures, or the rewiring of the classroom projectors. It wasn’t just that he broke things, but that despite his own track record, he wouldn’t stop. He couldn’t stop. He was terminally curious.

And I say with confidence that we all have known that one guy because, well, I am that guy.

It has been so for as far back as I can remember, and even further. I can walk past something and merely think curious thoughts about its internal mechanisms and they will give up the ghost crumbling to the floor, grinding themselves to a pulp, bending, folding mutilating. Spindling. I can reach out to straighten the most imperceptible bend or crinkle of a thing, and step away with a major part of the physical structure of an inanimate and usually expensive object awkwardly tumbling over my left shoulder on its unconstrained way to the floor, detached mysteriously from its host body.

When I was a wee lad, and my brother – four years my junior – began doing dexterous things like building models, creating Lego machines, etc., it didn’t take him long to add the skill of hiding his prized creations from me.

I was hurt.

I told him, because I was the older brother and that’s what older brothers do, that I could “fix” things for him.

His precious things remained hidden

I wanted so badly to build things.  But nothing I built stayed built.  in fourth grade, we were organized into 3-person teams.  My team was to build The Alamo using sugar cubes and toothpicks.  We gathered round the table, my mates and I, and worked for days on our project.  The other two were girls, and they questioned more than once why on earth it was taking so long.  And where the sugar cubes were going if they weren’t going into the construction of a fort.  And they never thought to look up and wonder at the toothpicks impaled into the acoustic ceiling, or connect the dots between the complaints of three tables over, the geographically-opposed opposite side of the room, about toothpick-based lob-darts with spit wads attached for weight. This extra-curricular activity was only partly due to my affinity for raw sugar and projectiles. It was also influenced by my complete inability to make the glue from the glue bottles to go where it was intended.

Oh, did I forget to mention the rubber bands? Yes. As it happened, I seemed to have a gift for ballistics and trajectory. Not the math of it, mind you. But I could make it happen.

In my 8th-grade year, our neighbor who happened to own the local Western Auto hardware store took me under tutelage by my father’s request to learn the assembly of wagons, for his christmas displays and for sales. I lasted 3 days, and it was gently suggested to me that perhaps it was best if my trade did not include mechanical devices, or their assembly.  I just could not understand how they went together, no matter how hard I tried or how many times he showed me. By the time I hit high school, I had come to an understanding of my mechanical skill.  I decided not to even try to take shop, even as my friends were making cars run, cutting and shaping metal birds, creating all manner of wooden doodads, and building electronic boxes that were radios, and lights, and clocks, and…oh, it was too painful to even pay attention to what they were making.  I wanted to make.  But all I could ever do was unmake.

It was in the summer of my Junior year in high school that things came to a head.  I was learning, under instruction and the well-advised caution of the Learning Permit system of the great state of California, to drive the family pickup, a 1975 Chevy with 3 on the tree.  

There were problems.

The first major problem was the coordination of the clutch and the gas.  I understand, and understood then, that it was a rite of passage for a new driver to do the Herky-Jerky, the Stall-Out, and the ever-popular “Push-on-the-clutch Push-on-the-clutch -FOR-THE-LOVE-OF-ALL-THAT-IS-HOLY-PUSH-IN-ON-THE-CLUTCH!!!!”, as my dad liked to refer to it, after the moment, with animated horror in his eyes.  He had a way of delivery that virtually oozed with sincerity, I’ll give him that.  Normally he was a calm, reasonable father, so I had to assume the clutch, wherever in that moment it had gone, needed pushing.  In.  

But I digress for the moment.

The second problem was the sympathetic combination of the two hands – one on the wheel, the other on the shifter. My hands would move in mirror image to one another, so if I was lifting the shifter, the driving hand also lifted, and vice versa. Shifting into second gear wasn’t so bad, we just veered into ditches, waterways, to the edge of bridges, tangled jungles of tumbleweeds that were everywhere in Southern California, and the occasional bicyclist or homeless sot. But third or first gear was a darker issue. The one and only time I ever heard my father say a bad word was a First-Gear event. That has stood out in my memory lo these many decades.

And so it was one undistinguished,ly sunny, hot day in the City, working our way Herky-Jerky to the hardware store. It was another test of courage on my dad’s part, and grim refusal to accept the obvious on my own part.  “The obvious” being, of course, that I was not cut out to drive a stick.

As we sat in stony, stunned relief in the parking lot of the store, my father spoke from his fetal position against the passenger door, his body attempting what his paternal dedication would not allow, to flee through the very membrane of steel and glass.  This man, though he was a doctor, had grown up on a farm, driving trucks across orchards with the natural gift of the otter to a river, since just a little before his feet could reach the pedals.  We sat, for an uneasy eternity, two broken people, wondering what could possibly come next.

After the emotional din in each of our heads settled for a few moments, He looked across the expanse of the bench seat between us, and asked a stunningly brilliant question.

Glenn, do you know how a clutch works?”

The question stunned me in its simplicity.  My outward answer was, “no, I have no idea how a clutch works.”  My inward answer resounded more loudly, “No, I have no idea why I never thought to ask!”

So, in a brief and simple way, he explained the whole contraption in a way I could easily visualize – friction plates, the synchro gears of the transmission, the effect of the lever for the shifter, the effect of the pedal on the plates – the whole thing.

I have no idea what we bought while at the store.  It seems perfectly likely that we forgot what we came for.  What I do remember, however, is the feeling of being awake for the first time in my life.  I started that truck up, eased that clutch out, letting the plates slide gently at first, and smoothly increasing the pressure until they were pushing us smoothly, and calmly down the highway.  I could be wrong in my memory, but I don’t believe I ever did the Herky-Jerky again.  It was like lifting the hood off the eyes of a hunting falcon.  The question to be asked, apparently, wasn’t “how”, but “why”.  That was what I was wired to need to do anything well.  If you could tell me why something needed to be done, I could figure out the how.  Or another how that no one else had thought of, one that sometimes solved problems people had been struggling against for a long time.

I’m not saying everything has been smooth grease and roses since. But that summer, I assembled a motorcycle from a frame and a box of parts, and made it run.   I’ve gone on to be a successful submarine sonar technician, fixing some of the most complex electronics in the world, and teaching others the art of it. I have figured out the function – and more critically the reason for the non-function, of completely unknown equipment based on fundamental theory.  Post-Navy, I evolved into a sought-after field engineer for sawmill computerized systems, and later a systems analyst and consultant in the field.  And as I look back on where I advanced, and where I failed, almost always it revolved around whether I remembered to, or was able to use “Why” and “How” as a delicately balanced pair of stepping stones, moving one forward, then the other at the right time.

If you have one of those people in your life, the ones who always seem out of sync, always breaking things, try this:  Ask them if they know how.  and ask them if they know why.  And listen very carefully to where they’re at.  Sometimes they’re trying to figure out why when they should be learning how.  And sometimes, well…the other way ‘round.  If you want to teach them, learn to listen, and to understand which moment they’re in.

On that way home, I felt a freedom like no other, having finally done something mechanically that was actually how it was supposed to be done, without breaking anything or anyone.  My heart soared.  And then suddenly, there at the left-hand turn from Barton Rd onto Michigan Street, I reached for first gear.  I heard for the first and last a bad word come from my father’s lips.

And I knew why.

Grown on Radio

 

 

 

 

 

I read this morning the news that Radio Shack has gone Bankrupt.

I guess no one really knows exactly what that will mean for their own personal favorite Radio Shack. But I recall mine. globe radio

It was 1970. Somewhere in the Inland Empire, my mom took me on my first Radio Shack visit. I don’t remember why we were there to begin with. And I don’t know what we bought – except for one thing: A bright red Panasonic “Globe” radio . And even though it was softball-sized, it came with a keychain.

Fast-forward a few months. It was summer of 1970. In the Secret World beneath the covers of my bed, I listened to my radio with the ear piece in so as not to alert my parents that I was still awake. I worked the tuning dial to get the best reception while the ball was out of bounds. I strained through the static, my heart stopping as Walt Frazier passed in, and Dave DeBusschere sank a shot from…I didn’t know where. I didn’t care where. I was crushed.

But the announcer wasn’t done, and neither was Jerry West. Words jumped out at me from the radio:
“three seconds”
“two seconds”
“one second”
I thought all was lost. Who had the ball? Where were they? Was anyone doing anything?

and then somehow, “West throws it up…” came through my ear-piece, and in that instant I thought “Maybe”. Maybe something could happen. If anyone could make “maybe” happen, it would be Jerry West.

And for an agonizing second, the announcer said nothing. The crowd noise continued as fervently as it had been. I wanted to know, I NEEDED to know.

In the end, it didn’t matter. Even though his shot tied the game and sent it to overtime, the Lakers failed to capitalize on the miraculous shot. But I didn’t get to hear about their loss until the next day, however, because my shout of triumph betrayed me, and the radio was confiscated for the night. Regardless, the excitement of that night etched in me a deep respect for the power that Radio Shack could bring me. There was magic in that store.

Until the advent of Youtube, I had never seen the shot, it only lived in video in my imagination. And until then, seeing that old, grainy film clip of all the other fans cheering, I believed that a little boy under the covers wishing with all his might was all that mattered.

Then again…maybe it did.

The Moving Wall Vietnam Veteran Memorial

 

A stout old marine storming down the street in my direction drew my attention from the people around me. His march took him through the short parking lot, up and over the curb and angled towards me across the park grass. A proud red Marine veteran’s hat emblazoned with “Semper Fi” provided a little shade over his bulldog face set hard with determination.  This man was on a mission. And it was about to become mine too.

At half the size of the permanent Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington DC, the Moving Wall would seem to be something of a lesser experience. But that doesn’t account for how directly and powerfully the memorial points us back to humanity.  I was invited to help out with the exhibit by an old Navy mate of mine. I had no idea what to expect, nor any idea how I could be of help.  But I went anyway, and found myself at the end of the West Wall, greeting people, handing out brochures, and preparing to have my life changed. And so I prepared to greet this determined marine.

His focus was so set he didn’t even see me.  He blasted past me by precisely one stride, and then…stopped, dead in his tracks.  He stood motionless for a few seconds, his face going from focused determination to abject grief in the space of maybe five seconds.  Turning askance towards me, his choking voice said, in answer to my stepping forward to him, “Dammit, I thought I could do this.”

The event was two days old, and this overwhelming surge of emotions had been expressed over and over again.  It was there when the Wall began to come off its trailer with hardware and pieces.  As we raised the first few panels, the many hands lifted them with a certain unspoken reverence from their storage and up to where they were to stand.  By the time 6 panels were up forming a right angle, the power of this display was already apparent in the solemn dignity with which the work was carried out.  Workers took turns between adjusting hardware in the back, and standing in the wash of recognition of human life in front of the Wall. Many of the volunteers were from various veterans motorcycle groups.  Handshakes were seldom enough as we came together.  Words were not always needed.  Hands on shoulders, a hug when a brother could be seen struggling with the moment, standing together silently side by side – these things were not just ok, they were needed.

The old Marine stepped back off the walkway, and around the back of the wall where he could shed the unwanted tears privately. He gave himself the old marine pep talk, “C’mon, you can do this”, slapping his cheeks to sharpen his sense of now, and distract from “then”.  In a few minutes, he was ready to try again.  He got to the same spot as before, and stopped again.  Hand on his shoulder, I asked if I could walk with him.  Another Docent, more experienced than I, pulled alongside and offered the same, and together they changed course, walking over to the table where information about which wall panel his mates could be found.  He could do that much.

This event was the first of its kind for me.  I didn’t serve during Vietnam, I served for 10 years on submarines during the Cold War.  I don’t understand the fear of bullets flying and landing around me, but I understand the dangers of submerging a vessel into the sea.  My shipmates and I have experienced our own nightmares, the cold breath of death held back only by the sometimes intense work of a dedicated, tightknit crew fighting casualty with trained skill. The closeness that comes from that cannot be expressed fully.  

The Marine’s list of names was nearly an entire platoon long.  Many of them were listed together, as the names are arranged in order of casualty. He spoke little, and worked hard to maintain his composure as he approached the Wall.  After only a couple moments he had to step away, face contorted again in grief.  The Docent stayed with him as he approached and stepped back several times. Gradually the grief from that day long ago and the years since became manageable.  He stood in front of that spot on the wall, processing the memory of those men, remembering that day, thanking those who fought with him, apologizing for living, thanking, living, and starting again at the top.  Thoughts that made no sense reconciled with those that do.  Emotions that had never seen the light of day broke out in such raw clarity that the pain seared like a fresh cut.

That morning I had ridden my first large group ride, “The Run for the Wall”.  We rode together, these men who were brothers of mine.  Signals traveled as we rode, from ahead to behind, each of us depending on the communication of the other.  These were riders who knew what it meant to be counted on. The rider ahead, beside, and behind me formed an interlacing network of trust that traveled the whole length of the group of 100 riders.  We moved as one, in the same sense as my sub crew moved, trusting, being trusted, doing what we knew was needed. I felt a kind of mutual confidence – the kind of confidence that is formed by fire. It fit like a final puzzle piece in my mind that had been missing for the last twenty-five years. Just being among these men, and being here at this wall with those who were lost, a peace settled upon me in a way I hadn’t felt for a long time.

When he finally left an hour later, the sturdy old marine walked away, his bulldog face turning back several times on his way across the grass, through the parking lot, and down the street.  It seemed he could still hear the guns of this new battle, as the enemies in his mind had been displaced, and still fought in their retreat.  This war of his wasn’t over yet.  But today’s battle, perhaps, showed him that he could win.

And I found myself thinking about him and that experience through the rest of the day. The scene played out in dozens of ways over and over again. More than once I found myself being thanked by someone who, turning to deflect the overwhelming emotion of the moment, felt moved to thank someone – anyone – in that moment, even someone who had done nothing more than hammering, carrying, and putting up flags.  I watched the sister who had lost her brother when she was in high school, remembering the day they came to tell her family he was dead – people reached out to hold her up in her grief, people who did not know her, but reached out anyway, and sat with her for a spell.  There was the swaggering old sailor from the Bronx, who stood calmly, talking to me so matter-of-fact about riding swift-boats, until that moment when he remembered the incoming fire, and the men falling – friends falling.  Another taciturn soldier began to tell his story, but suddenly he could do no more than say, “too long…too long…” in grief apologizing somehow, for taking so long to visit.

This one Marine marched into my life, and then walked back out with no more than 50 words spoken between us. But our handshake was a whole conversation. The speechless arm over his shoulder, the acceptance of his arm around mine in response, moved me beyond words. It took several days, and a thousand miles of riding, for me to grasp finally what was meant by the Moving Wall. This wall does not leave you where you were.  It changes you.

The Moving Wall – it isn’t just a war memorial, but a human memorial. And it will move you, but not just randomly. It will move you closer to others. The appalling reality of war is how it moves people apart. The miracle of such tribute is how much closer we can become.

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Let It Shine

I rode alone, a Solitary rider, pushing a small sphere of light across the darkened landscape. I count the elements of night riding amongst my closest friends. The storms, the languorous moonlit sky , the chattering twinkle of starlight, we have ridden together many times.

But tonight, as I passed through the mouths of coastal valleys that reach inland like fingers, and the hills and ridges between, I could sense something important afoot, something much larger than the usual intimate setting. The clouds drift in a fractured, broken floe, holding together like pieces of a stained glass window. Their only color is a somber pale gray-blue of moonlight weeping through the broken sky. It forms jagged halos around the clouds, bathing the landscape .

The fields, that should have been brilliant with the festival of tonight’s full moon, lie alert, waiting, listening. This is not a night to talk, nor revel. Nor was it a languorous moon, casting a lazy respite from a busy day. This night, the council of all the land and sky attend to its own affair, all the smaller beings of the night – accustomed to being in itself with the moonlight in attendance, leave off their nocturnal intimacy of individual doings, and hearken to the celestial council.

The closest clouds only barely veiled the majesty of this night’s Queen. The nearness of the clouds made the moon’s light feel a little too close for the grave matters being weighed. But it was not the queen’s majesty that was the center of attention. It was the matter of a light, that had gone out too soon.

Some lamps, extinguished, are easily replaced or relit. But some shine in small but irreplaceable ways, in places that would destroy the average lamp and keeper. These are kindled by troubles, mistakes, and sometimes bear the soot of hell itself. They burn in a dank wilderness most would not go into, and many could not. Their service is not for the highway traveler, nor the seafarer. Nor does it announce a destination. It is a scarred, dim, smoldering outpost, mere yards from hell, the first ember guiding the unluckiest souls back towards home. The keeper of that light know little of highways, but everything of the twisting badlands beyond.

And now, this night’s council was set, a loss unexpected, a lamp had gone out too soon. Such a small lamp, but giving a critical service. It’s loss grieving all of nature. It’s replacement unknown.

This little light wasn’t a pretty one, unless you were a traveler lost in the dankest of swamps. But it’s keeper let it shine anyway.

This light wasn’t bright, but in that deep a darkness, he let it shine anyway, a salvation to those lost, even as he himself struggled

This light struggled to stay lit. He let it shine anyway.

If you have a light, Let it shine.
Let it shine.
Let it shine.

 

The Paper Hat Parade

image Somewhere in the Caribbean:

The clouds come scudding across a timeless sky, an armada of impish children riding with the mysterious breath of unseen mothers, little boys with paper hats, Sailing from unseen waters, where those mothers gather of a Sunday morn, and blow their babies kisses, and blow all the joy in their hearts and lungs into these bassinets, and send them off to play, to grow, to age, and maybe in time to weep their sorrow and return home to their mothers, sunburned sailors, battle-worn soldiers, traveling wizards with the dew of life in their bosom.

And yet, today they are but children, and I dream here on an island in the midst of their silent child’s’ parade. I’ve sailed the place of their birth, I’ve traveled the lands of their death.

But here in-between, I watch them pass as a father, wishing to play with them, quietly laughing at their pretend severity, hoping for them to grow strong shoulders, wishing I could be with them as they frolic, and mature, tip and taunt the fisherman, plunder the earth, and woo Life Itself from the farmers seeds. I know their end, and want to weep with them as they weep their Last Sorrow, as if they were mine.

But I do not grieve. I make a paper hat, and stand face-on into the Mother’s-breath of this Sea, and wait.

Poseidon’s waves will carry their souls back to the Beginning, and they will be born and blown again, by laughing, loving, breathful mothers of the Sea, They will adventure again. I wish nothing but to ride in their midst for the adventure.

Lament for an Old Boat

USS Blueback SS-581-small 036

 

Am I the only one that dreams, sometimes

of putting together a crew of men whose seabags, buried deep in a back closet

still smell of brine, and diesel, and the hearts and souls of men

Who never thought of themselves brave

But thought with foul mouths, and big hearts, whose courage looked straight into the insanity of sinking a ship on purpose

Stared it down

and returned from the deep with Neptune’s cup, filled with a salty draught.

 

Am I the only one who sees an old boat,

tied, welded to a pier, dreaming of her glory days

while tourists boggle at things they’d never dreamed possible?

and plots in my mind to set her free, loosening the lines of that old boat

and with the tide waning,

sliding silently into the murky river water,

letting the open current caress her dark, sleek lines once more

And slip out of the river

And out of the harbour

And out, across, and into the open, watery horizon

Where together we dash her face with the brine of open sea,

bringing her senses back to her

 

I can already feel it, the sudden shuddering, firing of the diesel

The first burst of sooty smoke and then

The surge of life – feeling the innards course with life again.

Am I the only one whose heart is already going on a cruise in an old smoke boat?

 

Would we try to submerge it?

Damn straight we would!

 

Riding the lookout stand in the sail, feeling the communion of the sea coming on,

Binoculars around my neck, the wind tugging at my face, and my hat, urging me like a Siren to leave the confines of the boat, and be free forever.

But I am not here for the Sea

I am here for one last ride, to honor this boat

whose engineers, and crew, and officers, used her strength to defend themselves

and the ones they loved

To ride once more in her belly

So I go down, hand over steely rungs, in the familiar sway

that a submariner knows best, swinging my way down,

into a different world.  From topside to below, I might as well have transported to the moon.

Nothing of the open sea remains.

 

This place was my life, it’s no good to simply stand here, as a separate thing from the boat. I have to move away from the trunk, and away from the idea of being something distinct, myself, and to become only a part. I am ready to snuggle in to this weapon we called home, and listen to her churn, dozens of mechanical wonders quietly, subtly moving, breathing, pulse flowing. Every step I take, around the conn, deeper into the boat, I shed a layer of individuality, and am absorbed into the boat.

 

I can feel the machinery all around me, and the subtle roll of the boat at periscope depth. Can you sense the shift in the atmosphere when the hatch closes, and the boat becomes whole. A flurry of alarms, and activity gives way to a calm as the boat leaves the surface, suddenly still. The faint noise and subtle rocking of the surface are gone, and we are abandoned to the deep. I can still feel the gradual calming loss of dependence on the surface – facing that fear that has gripped sailors for centuries, is our purpose. We sink into the sea, no longer merely bobbing above it. The old familiar act of slipping on a set of headphones, of opening myself to the undersea world that few have ever experience, settles me in. I listen, for a time, to the whale’s call, the rain’s hiss, the distant fishermen’s boats churning against their load. And sometimes…every so often, sometimes, I still hear the whispers of other boats, the too-quiet silence in the midst of a pod of shrimp, the single metallic clink that has no reason to be in this chartless deep, and the sense of other men, straining to hear us, not knowing if we’re there, hunting, like us. Pursuing, like us. At home in the sea…like us.

 

The Big Game is long over for these old girls, They cannot compete with the modern boats – they are too loud, their equipment no longer superior. but couldn’t we just get one more ride out there, just to give her that one last run. I can see the familiar red-lit passageways. I can see familiar valves, the ones I had to memorize, whose handles taught me to trust – in myself, and in my shipmates who knew them as well or better than I did.

Some handles were cold, and jeweled with sweated condensation from the outside chill. Some were heated – water, air, oil all compressed, lifeblood pushed to its limit to make the ship’s systems function. The compartment hatches hung on thick, stout hardware, their weight enough to pinch off fingers. I can feel the unforgiving solidity of the hatchway, and the scar of the gash above my right eyebrow remembers – there is no give, at all, in a hatchway. Flesh gave way without question that day. The weight of the boat is immense.

 

The smells change going into the engine compartments. Oils, fluids, chemicals that aren’t of any use forward, but mark the territory of the heart of this boat, as surely as the musk of a bear marks its den. The thrum of the machinery beats against my head, and I can remember realizing long ago that talking to anyone was nearly pointless here, I sank into my own thoughts, accepting that outer thoughts were in vain. It was here, in nooks and corners of this cacophony of contained sound, nestled between pipes and cables, and bulkhead frames, that the shallow thoughts that battered my mind were drowned, and I could focus, memorizing diagrams, practicing valve line-ups, touching air outlets, finding fire hoses and flooding kits, remembering breakers, remembering valves, remembering.

Remembering.

Memorizing.

Learning.

Knowing.

I knew this boat.

And not just with my mind. My skin knew it. My bones knew it. My ears knew it. My nose could sense it. My heart knew it. Something that was beyond myself knew it – my crew knew it. No, I didn’t just know this boat.

I Lived this boat.

On the crews mess, we sat in predictable areas, the non-quals working through their learning, buzzing in and out of the crews mess with questions, and diagrams, searching for something they could feel but did not yet know. A couple of qualified guys always sat there, ready, either reading, or teaching the youngsters. Others among the qualified hung like a street gang in the torpedo room, sometimes plotting new mischief for the nubs, sometimes for each other. Always something was being plotted. And it was usually mischief. Or making fun of one another’s mothers. We waited for the next drill, or the next emergency, or the next exercise, or the next watch. Waiting to go back on battle-stations, and abandon our hope to the will of the gods. HA! No, never to the gods. The gods we knew there in the cold Deep could go to hell. And we’d send them ourselves if we had to. This boat was our turf, and no deity was going to tell us what we could or couldn’t do, because by Davy Jone’s locker, we had learned to take this boat deep into their turf, and wrest our own fate from their whim. It was in our hands now, in the hands of our knowledge, and practice, and memory, and in the unspeakably horrible weapons we carried. We spoke in the torpedo room of mischief, because we lived in such close company with it, it could not be left alone. We befriended it to keep a watchful eye, lest it try to scurry off and warn the gods of the deep of our coming.

This was what this boat was, an intricate lacework of steel, oil, cable, pipe, steam, electricity, and men. Each gave its identity to the boat. And in return, the boat became a single living being.

Where the Rubber Goes

Usually what you see here is a story, and today is no exception.  Except today, there are no words , just photos and music, a look back at the life of one simple part of a machine, and its significance.

i do a bit of riding my motorbike, and this weekend, my rear tire came to its noble end.  Installed a year ago, it has gone above and beyond the call of duty.  So I put together a slideshow with music, to celebrate its passing.

 

Does it sound strange to eulogized a mere tire?  Perhaps, but our mourning and melancholy, our celebration of life, death, and re-birth, is not for the fallen, or the departed, but for ourselves, who remain to find new life, and new meaning as the world around us changes.  relax, let go, and embrace the next, yet unknown adventure

.http://youtu.be/KlGUWf6Qi54

 

 

 

 

Taking refuge from Tyranny

I try, always, to maintain the habit of entertaining ideas without necessarily marrying myself to them.

 

I read something along those lines once in a cleverly captioned photo on facebook once, and decided it was a worthy maxim to live by. Could have been written by a complete lunatic whose only thirst was for my soul, I suppose.  I don’t know. But it sounds nice, and so I try to live by it.

Alas, as it often turns out, the attempt at self-righteousness exposes dirty little secrets sometimes. As it turns out, I’m not really that noble a creature.

I really do enjoy being able to banter and touch base with people I’ve known across the years. I do it to excess, sure, but then, my great-grandmother spent 3-4 hours a day writing letters, so…it’s in my genes, you might say. She would have been an early facebook adopter (she passed in the late ’80’s). She was incredibly literate, wrote letters, good gosh she knew EVERYONE. Her mailbox was almost always full (you know, that metal thing out by the curb).  She also wrote poems, stories (mostly religious in nature) collected news snippets and sent them to friends by clipping them out of newspapers, or magazines.  Her letters were always articulate.  Especially the ones where she sent me cash.  As a kid, I always understood those best.   She made notebooks of poems and sent them to all her grandkids.  Several years ago I remember showing my dad one she had sent me in high school.  He went and pulled out his, and told me all the kids, grand-kids, and great-grandkids had one – and each one was slightly different.  it was then I realized the scope of the volume of print that she produced.   She sent pictures every so often, although most of the photos she had were on slide film, and the only way to see the albums, which my great-grandpa fastidiously prepared, was to go over to their house.  I would alternately help grandma make popcorn and root beer floats, help grandpa set up the screen and projector, darken the lights, settle under a blanket beside the popcorn tin, and watch the slides while Grandpa tried to narrate the show. I say “tried”, because Grandma would more often than not correct him on details until he got so frustrated he would heave a sigh, say, “oh, dear” in a way that made you feel like he was going to set fire to the projector.

 

That’s how news, and history, and love, got passed around in my family. I still own a slide projector. Well, I don’t really, I borrowed it from my mom once, but unless she specifically asks for it it’s unlikely I’ll ever remember to take it back.

 

So this evening, as is my habit, I pondered a few posts by friends, and thought a little about what my great-grandma would think of what we have now, and of how I treat Facebook in a similar way to the way she treated having friends all over the world. She wouldn’t be much of a game-player…well, she’d be the ruling scrabble champion of course (she called it “anagrams”), but by now she’d have set all the records and the game would have locked her out.

 

My Grandpa, on the other hand, would have handled the politics crowd. But you’d never know it, because he’d read the posts, heave a heavy sigh of frustration and/or disgust, and go out and tend his garden. Gardening is the only really useful place to deal with manure.

 

And with this in mind this evening, I saw, as I often do, some of the political posts going around. I picked up one, something about a purported list of ‘ways to destroy the United States”, supposedly a list from no less than Vladimir Lenin. The list itself is a hoax. I’ve seen it before, and usually I go about debunking the hoax, and either leaving it at that, or bantering back and forth with the hoaxee, or their friends, who come to their defense. But in this case, instead I followed some of the links to links to links to links, to see exactly what it was Lenin seemed to have thought on the subject. I found one commenter in a forum who pointed out that while it was indeed a hoax, that the list was something Lenin addressed, more or less indirectly, not as a plan of his own but as an indictment of the elite of his day. And so, by that means, I found myself actually reading for some time the words of Lenin himself.

If you know me slightly, you might find this surprising. I spent some years in the submarine force, and am relatively staunch in my support and pride in these here United States. Sure, we have issues, but my pride in this country runs deep, and being a submariner during the Cold War makes reading Lenin akin to a minister reading Playboy. It’s just not done. If you know me well, however, you expected this. I’ll listen to anyone, spend a short time all agog at the newest ideas, but then as reason returns, I usually realize the futility of the hype. It’s a vicious cycle, but well…there it is.

It didn’t take long for me to realize the first of two major revelations. Lenin, in his defense of Marx, seemed to have done a lot of thinking about the interactions of the society in which he lived, especially in the dealings between the rich and the poor. As I have in my heart a soft spot for the disadvantaged, I found myself feeling a little sympathetic to his repeated tirades against the “rich”, and the system that makes them so.

And then I remembered my creed – to feel free to entertain, but not to feel compelled to marry. I stopped reading, and started ruminating.

 

Just yesterday, I finished watching a show on the life of Thomas Jefferson. He’s always been one of my favorite American Patriots. Somehow, the two men – Lenin and Jefferson – began a conversation in my head. It started with an ardent Lenin pointing at the wretchedness of his society’s condition, and the subsequent accusation of his country’s elite, the “Bourgeoisie” as he called them. Jefferson smiled in sympathetic understanding. Back and forth it went for a while, until Jefferson pointed at Lenin’s legacy, something that voices in my head can do that real, historic dead guys can’t. He did it in classic prophtetic style, even though it condemned himself as well:

“If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves.”

– Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Edward Carrington, January 16, 1787

Lenin was a reasonably smart guy. He certainly was self-assured, and believed in his cause. What he had in gifts, however, was his downfall. Jefferson’s brilliance was not in his intellect, but his acceptance of the one fact that brings down every empire.

 

We are all jerks.

 

What Jefferson accepted was that sooner or later, every one of us can, and given the opportunity will, become a jerk, a tyrant, an abuser of other human beings. We will, given the chance, throw our fellow man under the carriage.

 

What Lenin observed wasn’t necessarily wrong, but his solution expects that a righteous cause will succeed simply because it is righteous, and that if the cause is righteous, the people under it can’t help but become righteous too. But his country became one of the most brutal regimes in modern history. Worse, in some ways, than the Nazis. Jefferson, and other patriots like Ben Franklin, realized that with all this talk of freedom and throwing off chains etc., that it had to be understood that no man was capable of remaining righteous in the face of the right temptation, and that as often as not a good man could be turned to bad when the avenging sword is a little too successful a weapon. The Holy Crusades were, in the end, still about men with swords killing innocent people to own a piece of land.

We hear a lot about the wonders of our modern society, of the pleasant aspirations of some in our culture who see a vision of peace and prosperity where weapons are of no use, where harmony abounds and poverty is but a fading memory, because we have managed to end it through ideals that work out neatly on paper.

 

But paper has a problem. It fades. It never tells the whole story. Every article in every clipping you can produce will only tell a portion of the truth. And as painful as it is to accept, the part that will almost always be left out of every epic conquest is how big a jerk the conquistador was, when that conquistador is the one telling the story.

I loved my great-grandmother. She read stories to me – a LOT of stories. She took my dad and I in during a tragic chapter of our lives, when I was very small. She always thought what I did was brilliant, everything was better than any other child in the history of childhood. I was a concert pianist. I was a master engineer. I was a cunning apple-thief, and by golly if I could steal apples that well, then I should have apple pie.

My great-grandfather, on the other hand, was a quiet, circumspect man. When I showed him my piece de triomphe, whatever it may be at the moment, he would smile, but little more. He would give me the dignity of looking it over with a critical eye – not a jaded eye, but an honest, critical, lets-have-a-look-at-what-you’ve-built-there kind of dignity, that neither guaranteed approval, nor betrayed any expectation of failure. His appraisals were gentle but honest, and held more value to me than the words of God himself to my child’s mind.

Men like my great-grandfather do not seek power. They do not run for office. They do things they believe in, but seek no glory for themselves, and never get it. What he wanted out of life was to enjoy the love of his family, the fruits of his labor (literally. You should have seen him tending his cherry tree). His contrast with the life of Lenin couldn’t be more stark. But make no mistake, had he been given the wealth of a lord, he would have been a different man. Had he been given the power of a king, he could have been a tyrant. What he knew to do, in order to remain a decent man, was to remain humble, to remain a man of modest but sufficient means, and to not seek the adulation of others.

 

My natural personality tends to draw attention to itself. I know, by this, exactly through what means the wolf will enter me. And as I turn my eyes to those who seek office, I remember that they too are quite likely the same, that the men who established the principles of this country expected them to be the same as I, and sought in the words they used to describe the powers – and limitations – of the government they formed, not to triumph with ideals, but to prepare us for the worst that mankind could offer. Lenin hoped for the best, and you know…good for him, it’s good to dream big. But he also planned for the best, and as a submariner, I can tell you…sooner or later that’s going to get you in deep, deep trouble.

Repeat after me:

  • I have within me the capacity to be an absolute tyrannical jerk
  • Given the opportunity, I will ride my fellow man’s back like a rented mule, yank the gold fillings from his very teeth, draw devils horns and a sharpie mustache on his sports team’s logo (unless that logo involves a devil, in which case I’ll draw a halo over its head and perhaps a cartoonish depiction of the virgin mary), steal his tropical goldfish from the pond in his back yard and eat his dogs if they try to stop me.
  • the first Patriots of this country foresaw this penchant of mine in their own time, and rather than write the constitution of this government with the hope of reaching a Utopian ideal, made sure that in the end neither I nor the myriad other jerks could really grow to full size.
  • While sometimes I want to konk my neighbor over the head for being an idiot, I’m glad I’m not allowed to make too big a fool of myself, after all. Turns out I’m not always as brilliant a genius as I think I am, and it’s nice to be unable to run too far with the fallacy that I am.

 

On Pistols and Boyfriends

It is hard to imagine the power of inspiration that a crisp autumn morning can hold.  The kind that filters through the cobweb-covered windows of the dingiest of shops inspires curmudgeons like none other. It inspires them to do things – useful things. The most useful thing any curmudgeon worth his salt can do is clean his firearms. And so it was that I came to be sitting at my stool in front of my bench, basking in the wide panel of dirty, aged window panes filtering a panoramic view of a valley filled with pasture, contented dairy cows chewing various stages of grass, reflecting on my pride and joy: a reproduction .67 caliber Revolutionary War era flintlock pistol.

Its handle was the sort of deep brown walnut that speaks of ages upon ages of history. It was first polished with care at the family table years ago – but not this family table. It was assembled when I was a young lad myself, under the watchful eyes of my parents. My dad had bought three Black Powder kits – a Hawkins .57 cal rifle, and a Kentucky long-rifle, and this Thing of Beauty. We had sat amidst directions sheets, parts, chemicals of various sorts, and my wonderment at this device, whose thick barrel was tapered slightly in the style of a cannon. Indeed, at .67 caliber, it seemed like a hand-cannon. It hefted nicely in the hand, it imposed itself visually, its graceful curves and the innuendo of intimidating fire-power nestled well in the mind of a burgeoning young man. There’s something that speaks to the young man’s mind, the ability to control power.

A family friend of ours often went into the hills to practice, and she took us along to debut our freshly completed projects a few days later. Craftwork – the assembly, the blueing of the barrels, sanding and more sanding, and finally staining and polishing of the wood-work, was familiar work to me, but always seemed a little tedious. Now, though, now was the time for action. We had gone over the process for loading the proper charge, setting up the flash pan, aiming with the rudimentary sighting systems. I was pumped. I was primed.  And now was time to make some noise.

We chose as our victim an half-rotted stump that jutted out from the clearcut hillside several feet, deep in the Coastal mountains of Oregon. We tacked a paper target to the wood, and my dad fired his rifles first. To be honest, I hardly remember that part now. Every sense in my body was focused on this pistol, and I wanted desperately to be the one firing it. Wisdom prevailed however, and and our friend took on the responsibility of the commissioning firing.

We knew from reading that the effective range of the pistol was very short, and so she set herself up about 35 feet from the target. She set herself up, aimed, and pulled the trigger. Having listened to plenty of guns firing, I had in mind an idea of what I expected. What I heard…was a click.

And then another click

And then another click, followed by words I didn’t normally hear.

It seemed that the flint wasn’t adjusted properly, and so we adjusted the stone in its clamp, and tried again. Another click.

And then one more click, followed by, “aw, shoot, it just isn’t…” hssss-KaBOOOOM!

She had just started to pull the pistol back, when the flash-pan finally lit, and a lead ball the size of a large marble scribed an unseen arc over the clearcut hillside, never to be seen or heard again.

We all stood slightly dazed for a moment. No one had been ready for THAT. The delayed fire was unexpected, sure, but that BOOM! – it was unlike any other we had ever heard. Gerry stood, holding the pistol off to her side, the barrel still smoking, and we all looked at one another, stunned silence evolving into devilish smiles. That…was…awesome!

And so we adjusted some more, reloaded, and fired again. It took 5 or six shots, but finally we got to the point where the hand-cannon would fire regularly, and could hit the target. We all took a turn, Gerry first, then my dad, my mother (who was none too thrilled, but took her turn anyway) and finally, me. I will never forget that moment.

There are some things I learned about this gun. The reason this pistol is so inaccurate is because the ball comes out very slowly, by modern standards. It is a huge piece of lead, and only has a few inches to develop its speed and idea of direction. When you pull on the trigger from 25 yards, what you hear is: “Click..hssss..BOOOOM…thud.”

Yes, “thud”.  I could hear the ball hitting the target, distinct from the explosion of gunpowder. That firm, unyielding “THUD” served well to put the whole experience into perspective to my young teenage mind, the understanding that pulling that trigger would leave a mark in something.

Many a ball went downrange over the years to follow. It was, technically, my parents’ pistol, but eventually it became mine, and for a time I took it out as often as I could. Then it fell into some years of disuse.  The Navy shooting ranges didn’t seem to appreciate black powder.  I was able to take it up into the hills a couple times east of San Diego, but for the most part, it stayed in its box, wrapped in cloth, waiting.

But on this clear autumn morning, light streaming in through the window of my shop, I pulled it from its box, gently removed it from its oilcloth wrapping, and set about cleaning the barrel. I stood as I worked, wearing my heaviest Navy coat that had kept me warm through long January nights on the submarine pier in Groton, Ct.  It had warded off frosty air before, and today it was every bit as good a coat – and bulking agent – as it had ever been.  I caressed the stock with oil.  I took a brush to the barrel.  And I held the piece against me as I worked methodically, the tedium I had felt as a child replaced with a certain sense of meditation.

As fate would have it, unbeknownst to me my oldest daughter had met her first romance just a few days earlier.  She was an outgoing girl, to whom everyone was a friend, but finally the time had come to feel a little differently about someone. One of the groups she liked to hang out with were a couple of guys from her school, and I had made all the half-joking threats about her oncoming romantic interests I thought were possible. I knew these two boys, though, and knew that first of all, it was just friendship and second, they were good kids.  I stood, working my large-bore pistol, with the thought of my daughters blossoming romantic interests furthest from my mind, just focused on the revival of an old friend, when I heard my wife’s car returning from town. I knew it carried our four children, and began to extricate myself from my work, planning to set it aside for a while. But before I could quite finish, the door to the shop swept open behind me.

“Hi daddy”, came the ever-cheerful voice of my daughter. “I have a boyfriend, I want you to meet him”.

The words drove into my heart, and summoned something dark that I had never felt, from down in its depths. It struggled to take over my mind, as I struggled to remain at peace. I would win this round, its only effect was to raise my left eyebrow – strongly. With this countenance upon me, and pistol still held in my hands, I turned toward the group, smiled a wan smile of politeness, and took in the scene before me. Her two other friends, both 7th graders, were staring at me in a way that did not register for a second. All three boys huddled against the doorway they had just entered, subtly trying not to be the one I would talk to first. It finally dawned on me that what they saw was a 6’4” man in a military heavy camouflage jacket, with one eyebrow raised in consternation, holding a hand-cannon. All three boys stood stock-still, staring at my hands.

The import of that moment never registered with my daughter. Still looking at the new member of the gang, I asked my daughter for the lad’s name. She pulled along side of me, took me by the arm and innocently announced his name, her cheerful voice lilting in stark contrast with the expressions on the boys’ faces. Intentions to watch football were announced, and the crowd was gone.

And in the vacuum of the moment they piled gratefully out of the shop and back into the house, I realized what had just transpired.  Somewhere deep inside me a slow chuckle came to boil, and then laugh. I couldn’t have scripted a better introduction.

Many years have passed since this event, and the story has evolved into a family legend. It was perhaps 20-30 seconds, but every potential boyfriend of every daughter since then has endured the tale at some point. Boyfriends have been made and lost in that moment. Husbands have been married and welcomed to the family. All have been hazed through the various re-tellings, and the Ones Worth Keeping have stood the test. It’s odd that an implement designed for intimidation and destruction should have turned into a proving ground for boyfriends not by their courage, but for their sense of humor.

I still say I couldn’t have scripted it better if I had tried.