Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Before the Deluge

Spring 1992, Chalatenango, El Salvador and LAX

The FMLN banners were in the streets, people were waving flags, giving speeches and selling souvenirs. Way different than two years before when we had to pose as Agronomists when crossing over into rebel territory to visit Miguel Angel.
We made it up to Chalate in the Pastors for Peace Caravan and spent most of the day sorting out the donations. Garden supplies, computers and computer parts, baby clothes, school supplies, household items. We had to turn a lot of stuff away in Portland, like sweaters and electrical appliances, as you can imagine, and we thought well intentioned progressive folks were hoping to unload some of their stuff lying around.

The Caravan was a US and Canada joint effort, with 35 big cargo trucks, not eighteen wheelers, but moving van size, all crossing the border at the same time with the press and border patrol there, sometimes harassing them for hours. I went by plane and met up with everyone in San Salvador.

Because a lot of the donations were earmarked for certain provinces, we first unloaded everything from all of the trucks and then re packed it, each truck with a particular destination, like Chalatenango in our case. We did this sorting at the University where the six Jesuit priests were murdered, and countless others, many students and faculty, had been disappeared by ARENA security forces or private death squads. One guy pointed to the large silver 20 story building looming above us. It was empty, the windows were mostly shattered, and he laughed when he told me the Duarte government of the 1980’s, during Reagan and the height of the war, kept putting new windows in and the rebels kept blowing them out. It was like a game, and no one ever used it as a business or office complex. I thought of the great black obelisk in 2001 A Space Odyssey.

While we were unloading the trucks, a lot of people living in the town wanted to talk to us, and a couple people took me aside to ask for more help. Money for the family, they wanted to give me an address to send things, or just to hear their stories. I didn’t understand very much Spanish but listened intently until one of the coordinators asked me to help carry something or what have you, urging me not to give anything extra, no one was allowed because it wasn’t fair to others.

We spent a few days in the same village, and that’s where we met Comandante Maria Serrano, from Mariah’s Story the Documentary. In the middle of the village there were big trailers exactly like the ones at big construction sites. These were marked UN, and these ever present letters were on air conditioned trucks all over the country, diplomats, civil servants and office workers, swooping down in their helicopters to pour over data and coordinate the cease fire and Peace Accords agreements.

There were a few tables set up in the center of the town with UN people. Leading up to each table was a long line of ex combatants from the rebel forces, carrying a weapon to be dismantled. These were the terms of the cease fire, it had to be monitored down to every last known gun and soldier. The rebels had to give up their weapons, many of them stolen after retreating government forces left them behind. After all, many in the ARENA army were forcibly recruited, often sons were snatched off park benches or bus stops by police officers and taken to military barracks, forced into conscription under threat of death. The line of soldiers extended up the path and into the mountains behind the town. The sound and smell of soldering and welding filled the air with a metallic, sulfuric patina. Straight faced UN people, way too far from Geneva, wrote on clipboards and filled UN wheelbarrows with pieces of broken weapons to be carted off to a run down tin farm building.

They took us to the cache of dismantled weapons. Bazookas, pistols, all type of machine guns, rocket launchers and sniper rifles. Raining down death on whole families, now inert in a pile. They told us we could take anything we wanted so I scrounged around, only a couple of us did. I found a Chinese made AK47, its barrel sawed off, welded together and the firing pin pulled out. The wooden stock was intact, as well as the bullet magazine and trigger. Put a cardboard tube on the end and wrap it with electrical type and by God you’ve got a real looking machine gun. I supposed it was more memorable than buying one of the plaque mounted guns they were selling in the Zocalo, it held more personal meaning for me to select it from such a variety of choices.

When the two weeks were over, the delegation split up and went back home. I was flying through Los Angeles, LAX, and hoped I wouldn’t have any problems. I cleverly wrapped the AK47 in a towel and put it in the middle of all my stuff in a big suitcase. No radar picked it up, so far so good out of El Salvador.
Coming into customs at LAX, we were standing in line, one nervous guy in front of me, I thought he may have something in his little bag, he was getting jittery. I was not feeling nervous at all. I looked over and saw a shorter line and got into it. When I got to the desk the lady asked me if I had any foodstuffs to declare and I said no. Apparently this was the line specifically for people with fruit baskets, wine, or whatever food items you were bringing back home. She asked me to step to the side please and a couple officers would be over in a second.

I stared into space and felt two huge figures approaching me from behind. I didn’t want to turn around. They came around to my side and I was staring into the chests of two huge LAX Customs Police, fingerless gloves and looking up I saw the inevitable crew cuts. They were twins, I thought, but didn’t ask for confirmation. I heard one of them ask me to please open my suitcase.

Now I was getting a little nervous. As I unzipped the big suitcase, they asked me if I had any weapons. I didn’t flinch and said no, but I think it came out a little uneasy cause then they asked me if I had anything made of metal in my suitcase.

How could I explain, it wasn’t illegal what I was doing, check that jittery guy for the cocaine instead. I said well you know the war is over and the rebels gave up. I have a souvenir from the war, uh they were selling them as mementos you know, end of twelve years of Civil War and Communist insurrection.

They looked at me without saying anything, but one of the twins unsnapped his Glock, motioning with his chin for me to open the suitcase and remove the contents. I glanced over at the other people in line as my hand reached the towel. They were looking at me too, watching as I put both hands under the towel to lift it out, like a little baby in swaddling clothes, all the time explaining now you know its just a souvenir and its completely dismantled, you know the UN was there and they destroyed all the weapons and then gave them to people, so I just got this one…I was handing him the towel, but the other twin unsnapped his Glock, kept his hand on it and put one foot back. Open the towel sir.

The stock of the weapon came into view first and then the rest of the weapon, stark against the fluffy white towel. I saw one person in line lean back to the person behind them, eyes trained on me, as they whispered something. The customs people in the booth craned their necks to see what was going on. The twins were mesmerized. I pointed it right at them, finger on the trigger. They asked me questions about where and how did I get it, was it really a souvenir, what about this 12 year civil war I was talking about. One of them smiled and asked me if he could hold it. I gave it to him and he examined it, nodding in approval and verifying that indeed the weapon was useless and they could see no reason why I shouldn’t be able to take it home with me, just like any old basket of fruit.
I did put a cardboard tube on the end and covered it with electrical tape. Some friends rented Clinton St. Theater in Portland for ninety dollars one Friday Cabaret Night and used it in a short play they had written. I don’t remember what the piece was about and I don’t remember ever getting my AK47 back either.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Great American Novel

1983-1988, Iowa City, Iowa

I had a friend who was related to the Governor of Texas, Ann Richards. Her name was Robin, and she played third chair trumpet with me and Chris Abbott, first and second chair respectively. Her dad was one of the first adults I remember meeting who was literary. I mean he looked and dressed literary, salt and pepper beard, dark rimmed glassed, patches at the elbows of a corduroy suit jacket. My other literary person was my dear friend Judy Atwell, who allowed me to read all her Emerson collection one long weekend sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes. Robin’s father looked literary too and his daughters were all very cultured and intelligent, but with oversized rear ends every last one of them. I really liked Robin a lot, she was my best friend, and I think her dad knew that when we met. We had a short discussion at the doors to the high school, I had just finished giving a speech at High School Graduation, which he liked and commented on, and I told him I wanted to write the Great American Novel. He told me with a laugh that someone had better do it soon and wished me luck.

I chose University of Iowa for just that reason, starting with pre journalism but soon getting into the International Undergraduate Writer’s Workshop.
Flannery O’Connor was a quiet student there in the 50’s, writing her masterpieces of Catholicism and entropy. Dylan Thomas lived there a while too, drinking himself to death and pissing people off in Mama’s, where we always went for fitty cent Pabst Cans on Thursday nights. A wide array of writers came through Iowa City, though it seems to be known best for Bridges of Madison County.

Probably the most legendary figure of Iowa City was Kurt Vonnegut. He moved there in the late 60’s or early 70’s in a Volkswagen to become faculty, and wrote a lot of his most famous novels there, actually becoming famous and rich there. I lived in his house, the famous Vonnegut House, for about four years. He had been gone for a good ten years by then.

The house sat way up on the hill, just next to the woods, and we even had a barn out back you could live in. Next door, through the bushes, was Black’s Gaslight Village, a series of small studio apartments which began as a collective living idea and turned into Bohemian heaven while Vonnegut was there. Many tales of wild parties, complete with wife swapping amongst the intelligentsia still were echoing in the halls of academia.

For as many years as anyone could remember, the house had been the site of the biggest party of the year, held on May Day, complete with May Pole, bands in the barn all day and all night, endless kegs, usually New Orleans style food for some reason, and lots of psychedelics and anything you could get your hands on. People had free run of your house, everyone could be trusted, even my friends who shot up in the basement were careful not to put their needles in the common trash, they always put them in a separate bag. Divin’ Duck and Totem Soul, the band I was in, played endlessly from the barn to hundreds of dancing hippies.

We also had John Irving during the World According to Garp and Hotel New Hampshire days. I saw him speak and he had this really thick upper body from being a medal winning wrestler, but he was really smashed and gave a horrible speech and reading. After twenty minutes he was gone.

I also took a creative writing class with James Alan MacPherson. He probably doesn’t remember me, I was always really stoned. I tried really hard but didn’t quite get it. I didn’t get his class either, he read from Appolinaire or de Maupassant or something, some stories about Farmer’s Wives and stuff like that, trying to tell us where it all came from. We had to sit for hours and listen to him read before we could get to our stories. He was really shy too and didn’t say much about the work, like he hadn’t read it. I don’t think he read mine. I guess it was for us to do, it was a workshop after all, and we had to give each other constructive criticism. He didn’t win the Pulitzer for giving speeches I suppose. I finally read the award winning stories years later that he wrote of life in Chicago 1968 and was blown away they were so great.

I wrote my final story and got a C. I went to his office and he looked at me like I didn’t have a clue, and he was right about that.

A few years later I had a Modern Literature class in Ames, during a time when I moved back there for a year, when I was 22 or so. Jane Smiley came to the class and spoke to us about how to be a writer. She was really tall and lanky, and was eating a Snickers bar, apologizing because she hadn’t eaten that day. She seemed really nice, like her name implied. She talked about the two books she had written, saying they were in her and the story was just waiting to be told. It isn’t work, it’s like going on a journey, you sit down and your mind takes you to new places and you meet new people. The job of the writer is to introduce those people and places to people you never really meet, making them feel like they are there with you. She won the Pulitzer a few years later for an epic tale of Greenland, a really big book that you wouldn’t even be able to take on a short holiday.


Summer 1994, Mt. Shasta, California

Some friends told us they saw a woman down there dressed like Jane Fonda in Barbarella. She was hiking on the icy trail coming the other way, asked a couple questions and then disappeared. When they saw where she had gone there was just a cliff into a deep ravine. On the way home they mentioned it to the Parks guy, concerned that she may have fallen in, but he just said oh yeah that was a Lumerian, they live inside the mountain, you can go look it up in the public library.

We didn’t go looking for Lumerians, but one summer me and my girlfriend Maya went to Mt. Shasta on fourth of July weekend. Sure enough in the parade through town, a bunch of people dressed in purple robes, their banner reading Welcome Lumerians as if they were the Rotary Club. I guess they were actually giants when they lived inside Mt. Shasta, but assumed human form when surfacing above ground. They built great big cities underground with everything the giants needed, modern sewage, shops, great big houses that looked like the pueblos of New Mexico. They had tunnels going from Mt. Shasta to other power centers around the globe like Joshua Tree, the Pyramids of Egypt, and Mecca. The giants could go back and forth underground, engaging in trade with other Lumerians, or conspiring the peaceful transition to extraterrestrial rule of the earth in the next millennium.

Maya and I luckily found a nice remote place away from all the hordes of campers. There was an old trailer in an open field, but it looked like no one had used it in a long time. We parked the car and set up camp. It seemed like I could hear drums on the other side of the valley, but Maya could not hear anything.
As the sun was setting, we went out to the end of a fallen tree and looked out at the field and the changing colors. I didn’t see any Lumerians, and that trailer looked way to small for a giant, so I began to relax.
I had a bright tie dyed tee shirt on, and a butterfly started flying around me. Pretty soon a whole flock of them started lazily swooping and hovering around me like I was the king of the butterflies.